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Ask the Experts

How Can I Help My Unfocused Fifth-Grader?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My son is totally unfocused when it comes to school. When he can't figure something out on his homework right away, he gets frustrated and wants my husband or me to do the work for him. He never reads the directions and will do assignments wrong and then gets upset when he has to do them over. Besides that, for the past two years he has had a ton of late assignments, and no matter how many times we remind him or discipline him, it does no good. The idea of another school year of fighting with him makes me want to just go into hiding. Any ideas on how to help him get more organized and focused and maybe even (gasp!) enjoy school? He just seems to dislike every subject because he has to do work. Help please!

Answer:

When completing homework is a problem for children, it can make family life very unpleasant. Add late assignments to the mix, and you've got a recipe for disaster! It sounds like you've tried lots of different tactics, but you son continues to struggle. It's time to reach out for help from experts who can take some of the pressure off you. The purpose of homework is to practice skills and apply concepts learned in the classroom, not to learn how to do something new. While a fifth-grader might need a reminder or two to hit the books, he should no longer need much guidance from his parents. Unless your son's teachers have specifically identified a learning problem, then I suspect you are dealing with a pattern of behavior that has developed out of a combination of his desire to avoid work and your desire to be helpful.

It sounds like you are ready to find a different way. Since your son will begin middle school (where the workload is heavier) next year, now is the perfect time to make some changes! Here are some suggestions:

  1. Schedule a conference with your son's teacher(s) to be sure there are no concerns about his ability to do the work or his ability to pay attention or concentrate. If there are such concerns, ask for an evaluation through the school district; at the very least, have them put their concerns in writing.
  2. Make an appointment with your son's pediatrician to discuss the problems you've been seeing at home as well as any concerns from the school. The physician can examine your son to rule out any medical issues and make recommendations for No. 3 below.
  3. Consult with a mental health professional who works with children's behavioral problems. This might be a licensed psychologist, a licensed social worker or a licensed professional counselor. Five or six sessions will help you identify and change the frustrating cycle of behaviors that you, your husband and your son have found yourselves in for the past two years.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

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

12/15/2009:
"How can you make sure that asking for a 'professional' doesn't do the adverse affect? My daughter flipped out when I suggested she sees a councilor for help. I see a lack in confidence in her ability to do her work. She is capable but thinks she can't do it. How can we help her and keep her spirit in tact as well as confidence? Also show her the benefits of doing her very best work and earning our trust as a good thing for her?"
04/20/2009:
"Duh! yes that would be the process, where are your helpful ideas on HOW to help her son get organized and focused?"
04/7/2009:
"My fith grader had one suggestion. He suggests getting into band or strings. He says it is scientifically proven to help kids focus. My fifth grader also suggests setting standards. No grades below a C. Give small rewards for A's. He says don't spoil"
04/2/2009:
"Im sorry but this advice is the worst I have ever seen! Ususally your website has good ideas but this expert assesment of taking him to mental health professional is ridiculous! I dont know any 5th grade boys who LOVE school & are totally focused on their work without parents assisting them (reminding them to finish projects, helping them stay organized). Not doing their work for them but helping them keep on track is definitely needed at this age. Have you seen a 10-12 yr old boys room lately? Ask any 5th grade teacher & she will tell you most 5th grade boys, smart or not, arent the most organized or into school. They should be fairly adept at organization and doing homework on their own etc at this age but they are not fully independent at this age at all. Im assuming this Dr has no boys? This behavior is very typical for boys in this age range. I agree with scheduling teacher conference but would suggest reading up on boys this age. My sons 5th grade teacher got the class daily planners to help keep them organized and binder with seperate folders for ecah subject. There are many other ways to assist with this problem. Saying its a mental health issue is strecthing it! She didnt say he CANT focus he just doesnt. Big difference. If he couldnt focus then you take him to ped etc. But this doesnt seem to be the case here. "
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