How to Get Children to Do Their ‘School Work’

I’m at a dinner party.  A woman sitting next to me says, “I’m Irene,” and then she asks, “What do you do?”

“I homeschool my children,” I answer.

Irene’s eyebrows rise as she says, “Oh! Sounds interesting but how do you make your children do their work?”

Over the years, I have been asked this question so many times. So what is the answer?

I chain my kids to the table until they’ve completed everything I want them to do.
I threaten them with some dire punishment.
I tell them I’ll send them to school unless…

Or perhaps…
I don’t actually expect them to do anything. They only have to do things they want to do.

While we were eating lunch the only day, I discussed this question with my daughters. “If I said, ‘How do I make you do your work?’ what would you say?”

Make us do our work?” Charlotte was indignant. “We want to learn. You don’t have to make us do anything.”

I think about that: wanting to learn. That was one of our original reasons for homeschooling our children.  I wanted to raise children who love learning, who view learning as an essential and enjoyable part of life.

I have to admit I didn’t get off to a great start. Well, maybe we began okay, but I kept getting side-tracked. I looked at what other families were doing, or what the experts recommended, or I caught a glimpse of a fantastic looking curriculum or philosophy of education, and my confidence would start to subside. I felt a great sense of responsibility and sometimes I felt inadequate. Was I homeschooling my children in the right way? We did a lot of chopping and changing as I tried things out, and along the way somewhere, I stopped listening to my children. They no longer enjoyed their work, and started rebelling and I began saying such things as…

You have to do this! This is important.
You can do what you want to do after you have done what I want you to do.
If you won’t do this work for me, you’ll have to go to school. (I didn’t mean it.)


I think about what is different these days. Why are my children happy to learn? Why don’t I have to prod them along?

I think I gave my first couple of children the impression that education was something that children do. I’d completed my education. Now it was their turn to work (and their turn to suffer).  It was me against them. A real battle at times.

Now we view education as a family affair. It’s just something everyone does. It’s as natural as eating and sleeping, an essential part of life. I really believe in leading by example. Children see us doing something and they want to copy us. If they see us learning, they want to learn. They know what is important to us and that becomes important to them.

When I was fighting with my children over education, I can see they might have been thinking, “Why do we have to do this? You don’t!”

Because I told you to.
Because you are the child and I am the mother.
Because I know more than you.

We can use our authority as parents to force our children to work. But is there a better way? A gentle way?

Yes, I think I found one that works for us. These days, I trust my children will learn what they need to know without me forcing them; I try and provide them with new experiences; I help and encourage them; I show them I love learning too; I spend lots of time sharing and learning with them. Instead of saying, “You have to do this!” I am saying…

That looks interesting. Would you like me to help you find out more
I’ve bought a new book, would you like to share it?
I’ve just read your blog post. I enjoyed it! Would you like to read mine?
Where shall we go for our Wednesday adventure?
Yes, I’ll listen if you want to read to me.
Did you enjoy that story? Would you like to tell me about? What are you going to read next?
Does anyone want to watch a Shakespeare play?
Look what I drew!
Can I tell you what I learnt?
Of course, you can have a go.
What would you like to do today?
What a great day! I love spending time with you.

Our days are full and enjoyable. My children are certainly learning. But are my children only doing things they like? Maybe I should force them to do things they’d rather not. Wouldn’t that be good for their self-discipline? Perhaps they need to learn how to stay with an unpleasant task until the job is done.

I have come to the conclusion there are plenty of opportunities for my children to put aside their selfish tendencies and practice self-discipline: getting out of bed each morning at 6 am to go running; fulfilling their share of the household tasks; taking time to pray and learn about their faith and go to Mass, giving up their time to help each other, committing themselves to outside lessons and music practices… all of which they do willingly.

“How do I make my children do their school work?” I repeat to Irene. “I don’t use threats or bribes or punishments or force. I use love.”

Irene looks puzzled, but it would take far too long for me to explain. I can see she is already losing interest. And anyway, would she understand? I doubt it. Some things need to be lived.

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  1. Reply

    I was wondering if one of your children was wanting to go to High School / College / Uni is there anything you would do differently? i.e. to prepare them for the mindless copywork. Miss 11 is thinking she might go to High School … sigh!

    The "I have to admit" paragraph resounds with me BTW!

    1. Reply


      Four of my children have gone onto university and they all coped wonderfully. Duncan, my second child is actually doing a Masters degree at the moment. I wouldn't do anything differently as I think they were actually better prepared than school leavers.

      The first university unit three of them did was an introduction to university learning unit. It taught them all they needed to know as far as essay writing etc went. Imogen's tutor told her that school doesn't necessarily prepare students for university learning. School essay writing and learning is very different to what is expected at university. Also, being used to self-directed learning, Imogen had a big advantage over students who'd come from a school background. I wrote a couple of posts about the transition from unschooling to university learning. You might find the links on the High School page under my header, if you are interested.

      High school… I haven't any experience here! None of my children have ever expressed a wish to go to school. Even if there was a possibility they might ask to go to school, I still wouldn't do anything different to what we are currently doing. Making compromises would probably spoil their love of learning. I don't like doing things 'just in case' because the situation will probably never happen and so I would have regrets. If for some unforeseeable reason my children ended up in high school I am confident they would cope. The biggest problem would probably be boredom and having to conform, not the actual academic standard.

      Lisa, how do you feel about your daughter broaching the subject of school? Would you be happy for her to go? I imagine you would miss your happy days together. It always sounds like you have such a great time learning with your girls.

      I don't like admitting my failures! Sometimes I think I must be the only person who ever did that. Nice of you to make me feel less alone!

  2. Reply

    This is an encouraging post, Sue, and something new is clicking as I'm thinking about it.

    Charlotte said that they want to learn and you know that you don't need to worry about them learning the things they'll need to know. That's interesting because, as you know things were going well for us until things got disrupted and, then, the routine crumbled. The more structured side of our schooling didn't work for me, anymore, but the children do still want to work. They don't want to spend every day doing art or watching television and they want to plan readings and writing that are 'work' rather than entertainment.

    It seems that they are motivated to put the effort into learning the academic stuff as well as their hobbies. Now, instead of lots of read alouds, I find it easier to have a reading time where we start with one or two read alouds and, then, all have independent reading.

    Thanks for reposting this, Sue. It's been useful to ponder it all, again.
    God bless:-)

    1. Reply


      I think you are right: kids do want to do serious learning. They aren't content just to slide through the days being entertained. They need challenges. Unschooled children do want to learn such things as maths and physics and languages and music… depending on their interests, of course. For example, Charlotte is fascinated by chemistry and really does want to know more about it.

      I guess it's the same with adults. I know if I have too much free time drifting along, I get fed up. I look for things to work on: good novels to read, my animation work, improving my writing, reading some poetry… I even borrowed the learn-to-speak-Danish CDs from the library again!

      Maybe there is a general fear that, given the choice, children will choose not to do any academic work. I don't think that is true at all. In fact, I have no trouble proving to the BoS that our children are getting a well rounded education, because they are interested in so many things.

      I was reading a time management book the other week which talked about energy. It recommended we alternate high energy jobs with low energy ones. I was thinking how this could apply to reading aloud. How about sprinkling read alouds throughout your day to recharge everyone, rather than offering to read for a long period of time all at once? I guess it depends on what else your children want to do. I only have to say, "Do you want another chapter of…?" and the girls drop everything they're doing and run to the sofa. These quiet times in the day are so enjoyable, coming together in between working on other things.

      Your comment could be expanded into a whole new post. Thank you!

    • Anonymous
    • June 19, 2013

    I enjoyed your post and agree with all of it – except for one thing – "given the choice, children will choose not to do any academic work. I don't think that is true at all."

    Unfortunately, I HAVE found that to be true. One of my children most definitely fits that statement – if he is given the choice, he will choose not to do any academic work. I've not done anything differently with him than the others. So, I DO have to tell him to do academic work. I'd like to see more ideas on children in that category, since they do, in fact, exist.

    1. Reply


      I have to admit it took me a while to find the words you quoted. I was looking for them in the post and not the comments! I guess I was talking from my own experience and should have confined my words to my own children. Yes, you are right: not all children like academic work. I suppose that's the good thing about comments. We can mull things over further and add our input and learn from each other.

      Rereading my comment, I think I should have stuck to the words 'serious learning' rather than 'academics'. I gave the impression that academic subjects are the most important, when I don't believe they are. Everything a child learns is important. Perhaps your son is just interested in different things to your other children. Maybe he is learning, but just not what you want him to learn? I've watched one of my sons immerse himself in car mechanics, doing some very serious learning. He spends hours reading and researching and then tinkering with his cars, and he knows so much. He really amazes me with his drive. One day he hopes to own his own customising car business. To me that is just as valuable as the career my eldest son is working towards: school teacher.

      Sir Ken Robinson writes about the need to let our children develop their individual interests and talents, and how everyone can be successful regardless of whether they are academically minded or not. His books are very interesting.

      Unfortunately I don't really have any answers on how to encourage a child to do academic work if he is not interested in it, other than looking for roundabout informal ways to introduce the subjects, rather than use traditional methods. I'd be interested to know more if you come across some better ideas somewhere else.

      Thank you so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

    • Anonymous
    • July 1, 2013

    That's like asking, "How do you get him to eat?"

    I don't. He gets hungry. All I do is give him food. If he didn't eat one day, I would assume that either he was not feeling well or I had made something he really didn't like.

    Likewise, I don't make him do math. We have a math workbook and I offer to do it with him in the morning. He always takes part gladly, just as he always eats breakfast. If he started turning down the math workbook, I'd look for something that suited him better. If he started turning down oatmeal, I'd figure out something else to have instead.

    When a child goes to school, parents don't really have that option. The teacher assigns the problems on page 38 for homework; the child can't do them out loud instead. Flexibility makes a difference.

    1. Reply

      I really like the way you have compared learning to eating. Yes, they are both just part of life, and tastes and appetites vary from day to day.

      I feel we are very fortunate to be able to educate our children at home, and yes, be flexible. My husband is a primary school teacher and so I see both sides of education. He is very confined by what he can do with his students. Some of his students aren't good at writing, and he has explored other options such as verbal responses, but it's difficult when there are so many children all needing attention. And then of course, not all kids enjoy or are ready for the same things at the same time…

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment!

    • Jessica Abel
    • December 25, 2017

    Hi Sue, I just found your blog and I am ready to do this, I think. I have wanted this way of schooling my children but have struggled with just how to do it. My husband is someone that sees the testing is the way to know how much your child knows but our son has graded very low in spelling and some maths but has higher level that his grade level in reading.( this was a surprise to even me because he does not like to read unless it is very specific in his interest). We do not have to test in my state- it was just a guide for us to see where our son was since we have homeschooled going on 9 years. And I have a had struggles with ds from the beginning because he is very strong willed and does much of what he is interested in and we have had our battles. As we have learned with maturity(he is undiagnosed ADHD-we did not want him given drugs-this is partly why we homeschooled) he has settled down and does(some days it is a struggle still to get him to do this much)his book work (science,history,math)which only takes1 1/2hrs and he’s off.
    I want to ask you what do you do if he doesn’t desire to even write a paragraph(he’s14)on what he’s learned from his reading?
    I know it is the holidays and busy with family so you don’t have to respond now. Thank you for your blog and all the information I am going to try to soak it all in.

    1. Reply

      Hi Jessica,

      I’m sorry about the delay in answering your comment. I’ve been taking some time away from the Internet while we’ve been celebrating Christmas.

      A new year is about to begin and it sounds like you are ready to adopt a new approach to homeschooling. This could be a very exciting adventure!

      We don’t have testing in our state either. We are fortunate that our kids don’t have to do tests. But I know of other families who worry about this aspect of homeschooling. They feel their kids have to concentrate on the subject matter that will be tested. Unlike us, they don’t feel able to let our kids explore all the things that they’re interested in.

      It sounds like your son is motivated to learn. Maybe you’re battling because you have different ideas about what he should learn. Kids learn best when they are interested. They know what’s important to them. They know what they need to know at any particular time. But it can be hard for us to let go of our own ideas and let our kids take the lead. For unschooling to work, we need to value what interests our children and trust that they will learn all they need to know. They’ll do this in their own time and not ours which can be difficult for us, but is not a problem for them.

      Perhaps your son doesn’t enjoy writing about the things he’s learning. I can see how a paragraph or two might reassure you. You might regard it as concrete evidence of your son’s knowledge. However, maybe requesting a written summary is turning some very interesting learning into a dull chore. Is there another way? Usually when we have an interest, we are eager to share it with others. My girls are always telling me about the things they’ve discovered. I watch them involved with their passions. It’s obvious that they’re learning even though they are never tested and do not have to write reports for me. Do you think it could be the same for your son? Does he chat about the things he enjoys reading about? Could you jot down all the things he is doing? Keep a journal. Maybe try putting together an Evernote notebook or something similar. You might be surprised how much science, history, English etc he is doing just by following his interests. Maybe this will reassure you that book work and writing assignments aren’t necessary.

      I have discovered that forcing kids to learn is ineffective. Doing things like bookwork doesn’t result in valuable learning if a child doesn’t want to do it. Learning certain things in order to pass a test isn’t valuable either. If the motivation to learn doesn’t come from within us, then we let go of the knowledge as soon as we can: when the workbook is finished or the test is over. But when we let our kids loose to follow their passions and interests, when we don’t require them to do what we think is important first, then real learning happens. It can be very exciting!

      Jessica, unschooling is a whole new way of looking at learning. It can take a while to adjust our ideas. Maybe reading further about unschooling and then pondering and observing your son will reassure you that such things as testing are not necessary.

      I’m always happy to chat, if you’d like to continue the conversation.

      Happy New Year!

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