Who Is The Reluctant Learner?

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There’s a profound little quote floating around the internet that really influenced me when we first started homeschooling:


“If you have to tell a child something a thousand times, perhaps it is not the child who is the slow learner.”

Walter Barbe, then editor-in-chief of “Highlights for Children” magazine, 1986, address to teachers


At the time I was dealing with a 4-year-old Engineer who bounced off the walls, refused to do “school work,” and while undeniably bright, wasn’t an academic achiever in any way. After battling him for a little while with the ubiquitous worksheets, I decided that I needed to find another road. I was the problem, not him. My demands were unrealistic. My unfamiliarity with schooling my own child made me rely on traditional school expectations, and those expectations were the problem. In hindsight, I probably should have started to introduce this type of learning at a younger age so that this wouldn’t be a problem now. Even something as small as thinking activities would have gotten him in the right frame of mind for when he came to this age. My sister did that with her children, and I think they used somewhere like The Little Thinkers Center to find activities like this that would help them with their childhood development. If we did that, we may not have had as much hesitation as we do now.

I’ll admit, I was frustrated. How could my kid not do worksheets? Other kids loved worksheets, right? Even most curriculums have some form of worksheet-type format: do 6 math problems, then do these 6. Write a paragraph about the story you just read. Even pre-schoolers learn to print their name, right? How could I be asking too much from him if everyone else thinks this is the way to do it?

Somewhere along the path of our homeschooling journey, I realized that hey! Traditional school isn’t the best learning model! It’s often the best model for teachers. It’s certainly the best model for administrators to evaluate how much learning is (or isn’t) happening. But for the kids, it’s often the worst model.


Sit still and listen when child development says that kids need to move to learn.
Do tests to determine if the child is learning the material.
More tests means better information!
Be quiet, don’t ask questions, stay at the group pace.
Don’t race ahead, and certainly don’t lag behind!


Sound familiar? Sure, the traditional model works ok for some kids. It’s a good fit for others. But for most kids, I’m pretty sure if they had the option to do something else they would pick a different model. More field trips. Less sitting. Ask lots of questions! Ditch the tests, the homework, and the reading logs and just explore.

Put my son in any traditional classroom and I promise you that the system will label him a reluctant learner. They’ll ask us to intervene, to have him evaluated and plot out a behavioral plan. He’s not just reluctant, he’s downright defiant when he sets his heels down.


The thing is, my son loves to learn. He absorbs material and information like one of those magic water beads that expands into 500 times its size. He picks up the littlest details and remembers it, even when I have no idea where it came from. He wants to learn. He wants to explore, to create, to live. He doesn’t want to do “School.”

My now-6-year-old is highly verbal and astoundingly smart, but he struggles with expressing emotions, frustrations, problems, and fears. He shuts down. He reverts to pointing and going “uuhhhh” and “eeehhhhhh.” He simply cannot tell me “hey mom, I’m having trouble writing this worksheet and I need some help figuring out how to fix the issue.” Instead, he throws a tantrum and gets emotional and frustrated. Typical asynchronous kid.

So mom turns into a detective. A sleuth. I have to figure out the “why” before I can chose the “how” part of learning. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but we’re rocking along fairly smoothly until we attempt a new skill. Then the process starts all over again.


For example: the worksheet thing. He HATES worksheets with a burning passion. I knew that much so I avoided them, but I’m just now figuring out that there are some visual and physical issues behind his hatred. I can’t tell you exactly what the problem is (I suspect dysgraphia) but I do know some work arounds. We do much of our work on the chalkboard because it’s vertical. I use a chalkboard decal that covers an entire wall in our kitchen: room to write, room to feel like you’re not falling off the board, and visually stark. When he could barely hold a pencil, we discovered that holding the chalk to the wall vertically worked much better.

I sat down with Amazon a few weeks ago determined to figure out a solution after a pitched battle over a worksheet that I absolutely needed for our records. If the wall worked, what else could we try? It took me a long few hours of searching different terms and following rabbit holes down various ideas, but I found this: <a href="http://Visual Edge Slant Board (Pink), A Sloped Work Surface for Writing, Reading, Art and Speech for Optimal Learning – Portable Desktop Magnetic Dry Erase White Board with Clipboard for Kids“>a slant board (this link will take you to Amazon.)

The Engineer was excited to try it, so we popped it out of the box and plopped a handwriting worksheet on it. He declared it acceptable and told me “this helps a lot.” Woohoo! On a side note, why did schools stop using the slanted desks? Apparently this is a common childhood issue, and we’ve phased slanted desks out of use except in therapy situations.

I should also note that I did not purchase this board so that we could go worksheet crazy. I got it so that in those situations that we needed to write – like the handwriting practice we’ve been doing – it wouldn’t be such a huge battle. And let’s face it – you can only really practice handwriting by …. gasp …. handwriting! So we were getting stuck in battle situations and I hated that.


I tell new homeschoolers this nugget a lot, and it’s just as true for reluctant learners:

If you’re fighting over schoolwork, something isn’t working. Change it up. Try something new. Drop it, and revisit it later. Your relationship with your child is not worth a small stack of scribbled worksheets or thumbed-over workbooks. Find another way.


At this point, you’re probably sitting there reading and thinking “well, this works for your kid, good for you. What do I do with MY kid?” It’s simple! Follow their interests.

If your kid is obsessed with Minecraft, be sneaky. There’s so much math, engineering, history, and design that goes into building things in Minecraft. Assign them a world landmark to build in Minecraft. Let them pick which one they want, and then hand them the computer and let them go free. To accurately reproduce something, you must first study the original, right? To correctly build the right shape, you need to use math, right? It’s all tied together in a real-world kind of problem solving.

What if, say, your kid loaths geography? Do you slap a book in front of them and do tests for reading comprehension? Not unless you want academic burnout and boredom to set in. Dry facts are never the best way to learn. Instead, cook your way around the globe and let them pick the next country. Watch (carefully!) current affairs in the news and see if you can figure out the economic, geographic, and religious backgrounds that produced the situation. Do art projects with techniques that artists around the world have used. Skip the dry, boring masters until high school and go learn about artists like Jan Vorman and his “Dispatchwork” project repairing buildings and walls with Legos.

And speaking of Legos, most kids love them. The engineering minded, creative types love them. Use that to your advantage! Have your child make a Lego multiplication board like this <a href="http://Montessori Material Boxed Arithmatics Teaching Aids Educational Wooden Toys For Children Learning Multiplication and Division Mathematics Tools“>Montessori board (this link will take you to Amazon,) or learn fractions with Lego manipulatives. There are so many different subjects that you can use Legos to learn with: geography, geology, art, STEM, and math. Even high schoolers can have fun with Legos – try doing algebraic equations or model a chemical reaction with Legos!


When you have a reluctant learner, you don’t just think outside of the box. You throw away the box and build something from scratch that fits your child’s needs. Sounds difficult? Not really. Time consuming? Yup. There are plenty of days that I wish I could just buy a few different curriculums and plop them in front of the Engineer. But I know it’s not worth it.

It’s not worth the heartache. It’s not worth watching my child struggle, feeling like he’s incapable and incompetent. It’s not worth fighting over every little thing instead of enjoying learning together. He is NOT a reluctant learner, he just needs a special format to help him succeed. I’m committed to that – and to pushing back against the “traditional” model of school being the “best” model. Because it’s not – not for everyone. And no child should suffer becuase they do not fit the mold that traditional school tells them is correct.

I am the reluctant learner, not him. But I promise, I’m starting to improve. I’m beginning to understand how this child thinks. Maybe I’m not a slow learner after all!





This post is part of the GHF Blog hop Teaching A Reluctant Gifted Learner: Ways To Reach And Teach The Gifted: click the image to go read more posts with great ideas to help your child (and you!) not lose your minds!








  1. This is great! Oh boy have I been the reluctant learner at times – particularly when my kids learn it different ways. This is so well put – and I love the first quote too. ?


  2. “I am the reluctant learner, not him. But I promise, I’m starting to improve. I’m beginning to understand how this child thinks. Maybe I’m not a slow learner after all!”

    THIS! Such a great post! ❤


  3. I love it. The quote that you kicked off with should be on every teacher’s desk (homeschooling or otherwise). This whole homeschooling adventure is constantly requiring me to confront my own assumptions, my own demons, and opening my eyes to a whole new world.


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