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My Child Won't Do His Work

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


I got a call from my son's teacher. It seems that he won't do anything at school. He just sits there and won't do any of the work. I know that he's capable of doing the work. His grades were good in kindergarten and first grade. Once I get him going on his homework, he whizzes right through it. His teacher (who was a Learning Support Teacher for 10 years) does not feel that he has AD/HD. The child is not by any means a "hyper" child. Any suggestions for what I can do?


Work refusal in school is certainly a concern, as is any behavior change in a child, whether abrupt or gradual. Your son's apparent work refusal can mean any number of things. From something as minor as classroom seating arrangements, or an aversion to a particular teacher's style of interacting, to physical difficulties such as vision/hearing changes, or to more complex psychological issues, including disorders of attention, disorders of behavior, or family problems at home.

Getting to the bottom of this will take some collaboration. First, talk to your son. Try not to put him in a defensive position and make sure you let him know that you want to help, not punish, him. Ask him what he needs to help him get his work done in the classroom. Ask him if anything happened to cause his reluctance or refusal to do the work. You'd be amazed how one off-hand remark by a harried teacher or a thoughtless peer can affect a child's self-esteem or confidence regarding his classroom work.

Second, with all due respect for the teacher's level of experience, AD/HD is not always readily apparent, and it can only be diagnosed by a qualified medical or mental health professional. Your son's lack of work completion could most definitely be a symptom of this complex disorder, so I wouldn't rule it out just yet. With that in mind, enlist the teacher's help in exploring your son's troubling behavior. Have her give you a detailed report on his classroom behavior, including data regarding your child's "work" time and "play" time demeanor. Is his lack of cooperation with school work in all subjects, or just one or two areas? Could he be seated too far from the blackboard? Are his social skills okay? Is he active and involved during non-academic times, such as recess, lunch and P.E.? How does he respond to the teacher's efforts to encourage him to complete his work? Has the teacher tried a behavior management program of any kind to reinforce positive behaviors and strengths?

Third, schedule a physical exam and a consultation with your child's pediatrician to rule out any medical problems (including AD/HD) and discuss the teacher's concerns. Be sure to give the physician information regarding your son's behavior and emotional functioning at home. Once the physician has given you the results of the evaluation and has made recommendations, schedule another meeting with your son's teacher to discuss the results. You can then work together to formulate a positive and proactive plan for increasing your son's success in the classroom.

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 readers

"I have a kindergartener who refuses to do his work in class. He is on medication for ADHD and O.D.D. He will do his work at home without confrontation or hesitancy. His teacher has sent home 7 notes home this year as warnings for his tpe of behavior. I have met with his teacher monthly and together we have tried to come up with different reward policies for him....however, nothing has seemed to work out. I am really concerned that he will not succeed as he will be entering the first grade soon. HELP "
"Stacie, I'm willing to "bet the farm" that you wrote the question and the answer. This website provide zero information about you. Do you have kids [major question]? This is the some of the worst advice [as a parent of four, brother to two and son] I've read. I understand though, if you were a tire saleswomen and read the same question I bet you recommend balance and rotation as part of your fast food fix. A better answer might be: There is not nearly enough information in your [my] question to give you the resemblance of a descent answer and I recommend , if you feel this problem is out of the range of your parental skill set to gain control and help your child, you get your family involved and if you do not have family that cares enough, get your community involve. It is your duty as a parent to do everything necessary to teach [not medicate] your child how to live in the world. And as a footnote, please keep in mind that EVERY child is different. You should not expect, because your first child made straight A's, that every child will.. And further more, make the best evaluation of your child's surroundings to insure they are in the best environment for their person growth and development. And Stacie, at this point, if you feel like you still need to sell them something, sell them a shirt or coffee mug... "
"I don't think this article is offensive as a parent with a child with adhd. It is often teachers who suggest initial evaluation of a child for adhd, but that does not mean a parent can't also initiate inquiries. There are 2 ways Attention disorders affect kids, one is ADD, another ADHD. Some kids are inattentive rather than hyper-active. Also there could be many other issues which the author of this article is clear to point out. All in all, a fine general synopsis of possibilities to think about and look into. That is all anyone can give online without 1x1 info and details, etc. "
"It's revolting that you suggest ADHD and serious psychological problems with so little emphasis on talking to the child directly. ADHD is chronically over diagnosed by professionals as the 'symptoms' are often just traits common in children. A painfully obvious option is that the child is not challenged or has no interest in his work. If he 'whizzes' through it once prompted to, it's clear he's more than capable. You should not be able to give a short essay of dangerous advice when you only had a few sentences to go on"
"Why do you assume that a teacher will say a child is ADD/ADHD just because he or she is refusing to work? I find that to be highly offensive. "