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The Basics for Helping Your Reluctant Child Learn at Home.

A reluctant learner is not so much about the ability to learn, but the feeling that a child has about trying something new or to do something that they perceive as too difficult. We as parents and caregivers can support those feelings with patient and positive guidance. Some children just need a little time to process their feelings about a task before and as they are working on that task. I will describe a session with a child who needs a mild level of support on this day. In future posts, I will build on the basics and ramp up the support for those with more reluctance. I like to rely on learning by showing/doing; this applies to both children and adults! Therefore, I will describe in detail what I did and why, and provide videos to model this method of helping your child learn.

My approach is based on errorless learning or learning by doing which means that the focus is on doing the correct work with whatever support needed. Some children do not have the determination needed to independently plow through mistakes to get to the right answer. I also meet the child where he or she is when approaching a lesson and not expecting perfection. When a young child says or does something that is not quite right, in their head, they think they did it correctly. This is okay because it is a step of learning, and they will eventually get it right with practice. We just need to model the correct behavior or language (without strong corrections or judgement) and they will continue the learning process.

Izaiah is a preschooler and he is using the workbook, Summer Fit Activities by Active Planet Kids, Inc. For his home learning program, his goal is to complete 2-3 pages a day. My approach is to catch him when he is happy and content, and if his mood changes at any time, I would cut the learning session short and try again later. At this age, building positive feelings about academics is just as important as learning the academic lessons.

Before beginning, he is watching a video on a small tablet in his kitchen. I sit adjacent to him and engage in a little conversation. I open his workbook in front of me and look at what he is done so far. This allows him to see what is next, and mentally prepare for doing schoolwork. I review the next couple of pages and get out the supplies that we need. Black, brown, skin and hair tones, and orange crayons along with a pencil. He says that he wants to go to school. I let him know that school is closed, but we can do our schoolbook. I ask if he is ready, and he says yes. I pause his tablet and put it aside.

I slide the open book in front of him and I follow his lead instead of directing him to start at the top right side of the two-page spread. He goes right for the pictures on the bottom left side—he has done these before and likes them. I describe the F-sound, f-f-f-, and say the name of the one of six pictures. He starts to circle the first picture which is feet and I say, yes, feet start with f-f-feet—good job. Next is a boat. He starts to circle it, and I say, b-b-boat doesn’t sound like f-f-feet, so let’s put an X on it. I guide his pencil to make an X on it. Then he starts to put an X on frog, so I tell him that f-f-frog has an F sound, so let’s circle it. I then point to the fly and say, f-f-fly. He circles it and I say, good job. I say f-f-fish and he circles it; I say good job.

I point to cake and say c-c-cake and he starts to circle it. I say, no, we are going to put an X on it. I interrupt the circle with my finger and guide him to making the X.

Looking back on the video snippet, I acknowledge that I don’t always get it right, and that is okay. He moves quickly through the process, so it is sometimes hard to get all my words right. Other children may need coaxing to continue to the next one, which is easier for the adult to keep up with the correct positivity. I am referring to me saying no when he was circling something that should have had an X. It would have been better for me to say, wait, lets listen to the sound (I could hold his pencil still if necessary), c-c- cake does not sound like f-f-frog, so let’s put an X on it. I also realized that he probably doesn’t know what an X is, so I could have said let’s cross it out.

But even with my imperfections, he was able to keep going. I next guided him to the top of the page to trace the Fs. Because he did not start tracing independently, I guided his pencil. If at anytime he would have resisted my guidance, I would have backed off. I usually do hand over hand for extensive tracing and writing, but sometimes holding onto the tip can work as well for short corrections like I did earlier with putting an X on the cake.

After tracing the capital Fs, I let go so he could trace the lowercase fs. He just needed a reminder to cross it. When he wrote an f without tracing, I did not tell him to cross the f because I wanted to build his confidence without making correction of his independent work.

While watching the video, I wondered if I should have reminded him to cross the final f. When supporting a child, I remembered that it is good to go with your gut feeling in that moment of what is the best way to support him positively and to build confidence. For a child who did not even want to hold a pencil a few months ago, him writing an f independently is fantastic. He will have many more times in his life to practice how to write an f.

After this page, his body language told me he needed a break. Later, I put the book in front of me again. After a few minutes, I asked him if he was ready to do his schoolwork again and he said yes. This right here, is a product of me recognizing that he needed a break and honoring that. If I would have pushed him further earlier, he might have gotten frustrated, and might have not been willing to do another page now or even later.

The next video is longer (nearly four minutes) because it shows him completing a page. This time, let's watch the video then read my description. Notice how I guide him through and provide the crayons he needs to keep him moving through the task.

My approach this time was to put dashes for his name. If a child could already write his or her name already, I would not have done this. I then pointed at the letters and said them. Then with hand over hand, I guided him to point at the letters; I paused after the I and looked at him to see if he would say it, but he did not. Another time, I might strongly encourage him to say the letters with me, but since it had been weeks since the last session, I did not want to push his emotional limits. Then we traced them. At one point, he looked away, so I said, lets watch your hand. I described some of the motions and said good job at the end.

For the next section, one might feel the urge to write out the word brown and blond and have the child trace them. ‘I have _____ eyes. I have _____ hair.’ But since, he hasn’t practiced those letters yet, I decided that just putting the color on the line was the best way for him. The next part was to draw himself. I decided to use a model and instruction approach. I drew on one side of the page and directed him to draw each step after I did. At one time, he slouched back in his chair and turned away, so I paused the camera to help him refocus, guiding his hand back and saying let’s watch your hand. We then completed several more steps of the drawing. I sensed his ability to continue might fade again, so we finished before drawing the eyes nose and mouth.

When we practice errorless learning, it might feel like the adult is doing the work for him, but I insist that you resist that feeling. If your child could do it independently, he or she would. Many kids have a natural curiosity to discover and learn new things. Some kids aren’t always able to tap into this, and therefore, we can help by showing the way. Sometimes, kids just need to practice the process with more support and later will feel less anxiety about doing home learning work. Others may need various levels of support more often. Whatever level your child needs is okay; just try to meet them there. I would err on the side of doing more than less, because the goal is to avoid frustration instead of mastering the academics in each lesson. If the academics are important, then you can repeat the same lesson for one or two more days—repetition is great for putting new learning into long-term memory.

Remember, if you don’t get it right, that’s okay! You have another chance next time, and you will get more comfortable after you try my method a few times. Thanks for reading and watching. Send questions to To receive my twice monthly newsletter with more tips for supporting your reluctant learner, please sign up at


--Nancy Roop has a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Oakland University. She researched developmental psychology, linguistics and reading education while studying creative non-fiction writing. Previously, she worked with students who have autism for nearly ten years. She founded Developmental Texts and is writing her first book, The Aquarium with Alex the Storyteller. Its about a fifth-grade student who is passionate about writing stories for peers on the autism spectrum: real world, relatable and relevant.

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