Homeschooling an Uncooperative Child? 5 Mistakes to Avoid

how to homeschool an uncooperative child by such a little while (photo of young child sitting at table completing schoolwork)

Are you wondering how to do homeschooling with an uncooperative child?
You’re not alone.

Many families want to throw in the towel on learning at home after an ongoing battle of the wills.

I want to assure you that it doesn’t have to be this way.

So how can we spark cooperation, and more importantly, peaceful collaboration, as homeschooling families?

As a certified positive discipline parent educator and homeschooling mom, I’ll share with you the secret ingredient to homeschooling an uncooperative child and five key mistakes to avoid along the way.

Homeschooling an Uncooperative Child:
5 Homeschool Mistakes that Fuel Power Struggles!  Graphic by Such a Little While 
[text overlay image of two parents reading and smiling with young daughter]
Be sure to save this image to your homeschooling Pinterest board so you can refer back later!

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What does uncooperative behavior look like in homeschooling?

Without a conscious approach to teaching and parenting, uncooperative behavior can quickly ignite a power struggle between you and your child.

Let’s face it, once a battle of the wills unfolds, nobody wins. It becomes an inhospitable environment for learning.

Uncooperative homeschooling behavior may look like this:

  • Work refusal (may be subject-specific)
  • Lack of focus
  • Difficulty transitioning between subjects or activities
  • Lack of respect for learning space or materials
  • Arguing with parents or siblings
  • Not following homeschool “rules” or family agreements
  • Not wanting to participate in co-ops, field trips, or enrichment activities
  • Procrastination/failure to meet deadlines (older students)
  • Difficulty getting up in the morning to start the school day

If your child’s uncooperative behavior has you questioning whether or not homeschooling was the right choice, know this:

As a seasoned former public school counselor, I want to assure you these are not homeschooling-specific behaviors. They can occur among students across all learning environments.

While homeschooling is an incredibly personal decision, know that it can be a very beneficial, customized learning experience for strong-willed learners.

You are an expert on your child. With the right homeschooling tools, the possibilities are limitless.

How do you discipline a homeschooler?

I want to challenge you to reconsider what you may already know about the words cooperation and discipline.

co·op·er·ate: [to] work jointly toward the same end.

-Oxford University Press

Cooperation is all about collaboration.

A peaceful, cooperative homeschool environment does not look like one person making all the decisions and telling the other exactly what they must do.

Many homeschooling families opt out of traditional education to avoid an authoritarian approach to learning and seek more child-led learning experiences.

The true definition of discipline is “to teach.”

Well-intended parents often try to “buckle down” on uncooperative homeschooling behavior with punishments. This post will explain why doing so won’t help you achieve cooperative homeschooling.

The 5 Most Common Homeschooling Mistakes in Addressing Uncooperative Behavior

Let me start by saying I’ve personally made most of these mistakes on the list!

Homeschooling is not about perfection, but rather growing alongside our children.

So without shame or blame, let’s go ahead and pinpoint five common areas that lead to power struggles among homeschooling families.

Most importantly, let’s also talk about five simple solutions you can implement instead for a more peaceful learning environment.

Mistake #1: Trying to replicate traditional classroom management

Our first homeschool preschool setup. We didn’t use this table setup for long!

What is your homeschooling “why”? What led you to choose this learning experience for your child?

Research shows that mainstream school environment factors are frequently cited among parents’ most common reasons to homeschool.  So why replicate this environment at home?

A rigid curriculum, at-desk learning, limited time outside, and restricted dialogue between students and teachers are functions of a large classroom and school-wide management.

What the research says about kids’ view of traditional schooling

According to research conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, 75% of U.S. high school students hold negative feelings about school.

“We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.”

Zorana Ivcevic, Research Scientist, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Replicating a traditional school environment in your home is one of the most common reasons kids push back on learning.

The solution: Reframe your expectations

If your child is pushing back on your homeschool structure, it may be time to rethink expectations about what learning looks like in your home. Simply do what works best for your child.

For example, my Pre-K son is rarely “in the mood” for formal, sit-down morning calendar time.

Once I stopped pushing this structure, I found he will gladly sing the days of the week song and look outside to give me the daily weather report. We’re still covering the same content, but in a way that feels more like play.

Homeschooling an uncooperative child 
Photograph of young boy's hands matching uppercase and lowercase letters stuck onto plastic building blocks.
Image by Such a Little While.
A letter matching activity from Busy Toddler’s Playing Preschool curriculum. We found that my son often learns best standing in his learning tower at the kitchen island!

Flexibility and adaptability are key.

Consider:

  • What time of day does my child learn best?
  • Where does my child learn best? (e.g., on the floor, outside, or in a favorite comfy chair)
  • How much unstructured time does my child have during the day? What does that time look like? (e.g., outside, open-ended play, away from screens)
  • How much time is my child getting to talk, ask questions, share ideas, explore, and challenge thoughts*?
  • What does your daily routine look like?**

*Rather than using threats, fear, or punishments to elicit blind obedience, positive parents believe in teaching children how to express their opinions and challenge ideas respectfully.

**Consider your child’s favorite and least favorite parts of the day when creating a daily routine/rhythm. Space out unpreferred activities and follow them up with your child’s favorites. Ex: “First we’ll complete this math game, then we can go ride bikes.”

Mistake #2: Choosing curricula and lessons without your child’s input

Remember, collaboration is key to cooperation.

The more say kids feel they have in their day-to-day, the less likely they are to act out to regain control.

Set your boundaries, then create ample opportunities for your child to have a “voice and choice” within those limits.

Homeschooling an uncooperative child
How to be "kind and firm" with positive parenting
Voice and choice within your boundary (image of fences)
Graphic by Such a Little While

The solution: Empower your child to take ownership over their learning

Child-led learning is not just for families that follow unschooling. It’s an effective practice that can be incorporated into any style of homeschooling.

Example for Young Children

If you are working on addition with a younger child, ask them to choose a small set of toys to use as counters. Ex: “Which would you like to use for our game, your cars or dinosaur toys?”

Be sure to throw in some animated sound effects or act out a pretend scenario as you move the counters together. Young kids learn best through play!

Example for Older Children

Include older children in curriculum planning, and they will be much more likely to engage in learning the content.

Always double-check your state’s requirements, but subjects like history and science rarely need to match up with what your local public school is covering. Instead, they can be curated to your child’s natural interests.

For example, allow your child to choose a historical period that piques their interest. Then, instead of covering the content through a textbook, have them help choose some engaging historical fiction novels from the local library to support their study.

If you are homeschooling multiple children, you can take a vote or take turns choosing topics and activities so that everyone feels like they have a say in their learning.

Mistake #3: Implementing punishments for schoolwork refusal

As homeschooling parents, we want nothing more than to foster a love of learning in our kids.

When we start trying to force learning on our kids and hand out punishments when they don’t comply, we get just the opposite: combative, uncooperative, and even defiant attitudes about school.

Positive discipline also discourages the use of rewards, which do little to foster internal motivation in children.

Again, when we collaborate with our kids and allow them to take part in homeschooling decisions, they’ll be much more motivated to learn.

The solution: Use recognition instead of punishment and rewards

Contrary to popular belief, positive discipline is not about using positive reinforcement or praise. Positive reinforcement tends to be more about us as caregivers and less about our kids.

Homeschooling an uncooperative child:
Recognition [greater than sign] Rewards
Graphic by Such a Little While

For example, well-intended statements such as “I’m so proud of you!” or “You did your math work, I’m so happy!” are more about the caregiver.

Instead, positive parenting encourages recognition, which fosters self-awareness and intrinsic motivation.

Homeschooling an uncooperative child: Praise vs. Recognition
Praise: "Wow, you won the game!  You're so smart.  I"m so proud of you."
Recognition: "I noticed how hard you worked to play fair and follow the rules.  How did that feel?"
Graphic by Such a Little While

When we use recognition, we take notice of our child’s efforts, point them out, and ask reflection questions.

The goal of recognition is to help children recognize their own positive choices and feel proud of themselves.

As a result, they will be more likely to repeat that same choice in the future without being swayed by punishments and rewards.

Mistake #4: Overlooking the root of the problem (e.g., underlying mental health or medical concerns)

If you’ve been implementing positive parenting techniques into your homeschooling practice and your child is still uncooperative or unmotivated, it may be time to rule out other causes.

Mental health and medical conditions, as well as learning disabilities, can play a role in school resistance.

A lack of motivation and focus can be symptoms of childhood depression. Additionally, kids struggling with anxiety may appear angry or suffer from fatigue.

Children with learning disabilities may struggle with listening and following directions as well.

Solution: Seek more information and support

If you suspect an underlying condition may be contributing to challenging homeschool behavior, trust your gut and seek help quickly.

Talking with your pediatrician is an excellent first step in advocating for your child. They can help connect you with other relevant professionals to identify any underlying conditions and develop a support plan.

Remember, it often takes a village to homeschool a child!

Expanding your child’s circle of support is not a sign of weakness on your part. Instead, it requires great courage and strength as a parent educator.

Mistake #5: Being too focused on the finish line

Children love learning from teachers who love teaching and learning alongside them.

If we are constantly focused on the end result and rushing to check off boxes on our to-do list, our kids will pick up on that energy.

When we slow down and connect with our kids over learning, they’re more likely to engage and less likely to push back.

Sometimes we become so focused on the finish line, that we fail to find joy in the journey.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf 

Solution: Make it about the journey

Strive to live in the present as a homeschooling parent. Make a conscious effort to avoid the comparison game. Try not to dwell on where you think your child “needs to be” by the end of the year.

Instead, sit down and enjoy each moment with your child. Perhaps you only completed half of the grammar lesson you intended today, but you had a meaningful conversation about empathy. You are still moving forward.

Children have an amazing way of picking up on parental emotions. If we are rushed, demanding, or agitated, they too will feel stressed.

Homeschooling an uncooperative child:
"Recent research found that parents who try to suppress their feelings of stress may ultimately pass those emotions onto their kids."
by Such a Little While
Learn what to do when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed but can’t find time for self-care here.

When we fully immerse ourselves in the here-and-now as homeschoolers and find fun and joy along the way, our kids will too!

The last thing you need to know about homeschooling an uncooperative child

If you’ve read this far, you likely already know that positive parenting is the secret sauce when striving for peaceful, collaborative homeschooling.

Positive parenting isn’t about perfection, but rather continual learning, reflection, and growth.

Learn a positive approach to discipline for free

Homeschooling an uncooperative child:
Such a Little While Positive Parenting Challenge

If you’d like to learn the foundation of positive parenting and master some essential discipline tools to support your homeschooling journey, I invite you to join me in Such a Little While’s free 30-day positive parenting challenge.

I designed this no-cost course for busy, loving parents so it takes just a few minutes each day. We’ll cover:

  • 30 easy-to-follow tips across 10 essential features of positive parenting
  • Essential “do’s” and “don’ts” of a positive approach to discipline
  • How to stay the course when your patience runs thin
  • How to use consequences effectively with our parent-favorite discipline “cheat sheet”

Managing Routines & Transitions in Early Childhood: Positive Parenting Challenge PDF Workbook by Such a Little While
Graphic of free PDF workbook.  Text Reads "Positive Parenting Challenge 3.0, must-know positive discipline do's & dont's, 30 powerful, easy-to-follow tips & tools, unlock 10 key features of positive parenting, customizable parenting solutions, master the art of effective consequences).

    You’ve got this!

    My toddler refuses to brush their teeth blot post, written by Tana from Such a Little While
    Hi, I’m Tana! I’m a mom, certified positive parent educator, and former school counselor. It’s my mission to help you foster social/emotional wellness through positive parenting.

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