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Ask the Experts

My Fifth-Grader Shows No Interest

By Dr. Joseph Gianesin, Behavioral Consultant

Question:

My daughter does very well in school but is not interested in anything anyone else wants to teach her, including myself. In any conversation she disconnects
and simply does not listen. She's also very stubborn when I try to help her with homework.

Answer:

You have described characteristics of many pre-adolescents. Fifth-grade girls mature very quickly, and some move into the pre-adolescent phase of striving for independence early, and as a colleague of mine used to say, "They get the big feeling." This translates into a form of narcissism. Everything centers around them, they have difficulty listening to others, and when spoken to, they often roll their eyes barely tolerating your very presence. This is fairly typical behavior of this age group.

I would suggest that you find activities that you and your daughter have in

common, and communicate and establish a relationship with her in a less stressful situation than doing homework. Developing a rapport in a non-stressful interaction will build trust for those difficult times that will likely occur in the near future.

The parents most successful in dealing with homework are those who offer to assist when asked by the child. This puts the control in the hands of the child and creates a situation to ask on an "as needed" basis. If and when your child does ask for help, be sure to be non-judgmental in your approach. For example, you might frame your thoughts this way if she has done a poor job with her homework: "You have a unique method of attacking this problem. I might view solving this problem by......."

Using "I" messages rather than "you" messages breaks down the barriers and leaves the door open for future communication.

Here are some suggestions regarding homework:

  • Check the child's backpack before she leaves home and school to ensure that she has what she needs.
  • Use an assignment book that can be routed daily between teacher and parent.
  • Consider having a duplicate set of books at home for easy reference.
  • Discuss dividing assignments that are not due for several days into segments and completing one step at a time.
  • Encourage homework breaks, use of lesson outlines and checklists.
  • Suggest that siblings not engage in activities that compete for your child's attention during homework time (e.g., postpone video-game playing until the homework period is over).
  • Look for ways to improve parent-child interactions regarding homework, such as answering questions, providing a setting conducive to study, helping your child practice spelling and math, accompanying her to the library, helping her rehearse oral presentations, helping select and design science fair exhibits, shopping for project materials, and praising her efforts and accomplishments.
  • In situations where parents are unable to assist their child with her homework or where tension between the parents and child over homework is excessive, ask an experienced teacher, peer or mature high school or college student to provide extra homework help. A few schools have optional programs in which children complete homework at school after regular hours under the guidance of a teacher.

Your daughter is transitioning into the world of adolescence. Be careful to pick your battles, but set firm and consistent boundaries and rules for her. As she moves into adolescence, her independent attitude will likely get worse initially. As she matures, she will reconnect with you. These can be very trying times, but a great deal of patience and firmness will prepare her to be a wonderful adult. I always recommend that mothers with a daughter this age read Mary Pipher's book, Reviving Ophelia. It provides an eye-opening look at the everyday dangers of being young and female, and the way adults, especially mothers, can help.


Dr. Joseph Gianesin is a professor at Springfield College School of Social Work. He has more than 25 years of experience as a child and family therapist, a school social worker and a school administrator. Along with his academic appointment, Dr. Gianesin is a program and behavioral consultant for public schools in Massachusetts, helping them develop and manage programs for children with significant mental health problems.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/23/2010:
"My jaw dropped as I read. So does this mean we're 'normal'? Breathe...... Breathe......."
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