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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.