Instead Of Punishing, We Should Be Asking “Why”
A few days ago, I saw a post on a different group than the one I moderate for ADHD parent support. The post was from a parent asking for advice about how to punish a child for refusal to complete assignments in virtual school. The mom said she didn’t want to take recess away, as their pediatrician said that exercise is important for children with ADHD. (I can agree with that!) What followed were a lot of comments about other punishments that she could enact, like having the child walk or run the school yard instead of recess, or have them do extra work, or lose privileges for electronics.
It was at this point that I had to jump in.
Look at lists of symptoms for ADHD, and you will find all of the executive functions listed as possibly affected. At it’s core, ADHD is weakness in executive functioning. The child’s refusal to complete assignments is coming from a lagging skill in one or more areas. It is not just a behavioral problem.
No type or amount of punishment is going to change underlying executive functioning. It’s like punishing a child for not being able to ride a bike when they haven’t learned yet. So instead of asking how to punish, what we should be asking is “why did my child not do their work?” There is most definitely a reason. Making them run the school field won’t address that reason. Taking away a toy or privilege won’t address that reason. A punishment might gain short term compliance, but it is not going to solve this problem in the future. Most important in the asking of this question: it reframes the issue from one of blame to one of compassion.
Common Reasons For “Refusal” To Complete Assignments
The most common reasons that I am finding for kids and teens not completing their schoolwork are listed below. A new set of issues has cropped up with virtual and hybrid learning, but these refusals existed even before, when all school was conducted in-person. Don’t be fooled into thinking the “new way of learning” is causing these refusals!
- Don’t know what the assignment is and/or when it’s due
- Don’t know how to prioritize the order to begin assignments
- Forgot about an assignment because it wasn’t listed with the others
- Don’t understand how to do it (subject material, or confusing directions)
- It’s going to take too long, it’s uninteresting or perceived as irrelevant, and child or teen would rather engage in leisure activity than schoolwork
How To Find The “Why”
In order to provide the right amount of support your child needs so that they can succeed, you may need to engage in a little detective work. We want to ask specific questions to get to the answer. Instead of “why didn’t you do it?” (blaming), you can ask “what was difficult about it?” or “how can I help you understand this?” (showing compassion).
I’ll give you a real example. I have a client who has fallen behind in a few of his classes. He is staying current with the classes that are more concrete and that he is better at – math, science, and Spanish. He is weeks behind in English.
I sat down with him and assessed his learning style, executive functioning skills, and future goals. We looked at strengths, weaknesses, and what barriers he was encountering. I found that he has difficulty writing, researching, and organizing his thoughts. He struggles with decision making as well. He would land on a research topic, then change his mind repeatedly. He perceives the stakes as high in any decision involving school, as he truly does care and is quite a perfectionist. The assignments were multi-step, high school English that, in his mind, looked like they were going to take forever. He couldn’t even get started, so he didn’t.
Taking the time to address the underlying issues allowed me, and his parents, to come up with a plan to get back on track. He needed to see how to to break big assignments down into more manageable pieces, to schedule time for reading and research, and to figure out the best way to organize. It took some time, but he was eventually able to get caught up in all classes.
What would have happened if his mom had taken away his video games as punishment for the refusal to complete assignments? The assignments most likely wouldn’t have been done independently, as he truly did not know how to get started with organization, prioritizing, and time demands.
I have another, younger, client who is in elementary school full time in-person class instruction. He is not able to do his homework without me or one of his parents sitting next to him. He rushes ahead to complete his work as quickly as possible, and thus he struggles with making his writing legible, and reading for comprehension. Without the accountability of someone right next to him, he gets off task, he daydreams and fidgets, his writing is illegible, and he ends up having to re-do the work, which leads to frustration and further avoidance. When I sat next to him and reminded him of the three keys for neater writing, and tapped the table to help him re-focus, and asked him to take a breath, slow down, and think before writing any answer, I was teaching him how to become more disciplined and what strategies he needed in order to make homework time smoother. He is a smart boy, so pointing out that while this process seemed like it was taking longer, he was actually going to save time in the end by not having to re-write and re-read things he missed.
What would happen if mom had taken away his playtime on the trampoline in the backyard, or his nightly bike ride with the family around the neighborhood? Would that have helped him slow down, write neatly, use active reading techniques, and stay focused? Not even close!
I don’t have a checklist of questions to ask, as I let the conversation unfold naturally, but here are a few questions that come to mind:
- Do you know what you have to do? If the answer is yes, I ask them to explain it to me, so I can be sure that they understand. If the answer is no, I help them figure it out, then repeat it back.
- Do you know how to do it? If the answer is yes, I ask them to go ahead and start. If the answer is no, I ask how they can find out. Do they need to read the directions, look online, contact the teacher, call a friend, attend tutoring? I encourage kids and teens to solve their own problems. If it is a long project, they may know how to do it in general, but not how to break it down into smaller bits.
- Do you have everything you need? I am referring to materials as well as having any research or other work done that will be needed.
- Is there something about this (homework, assignment, etc) that is too hard or confusing for you? This is a similar question to do you know how, but it’s different in that they may know how, but it’s just too hard or will take too long. Sometimes I ask them to scale it from 1 – 5, 1 being “super easy” to 5 being “really hard”.
- What do you think about this (homework, assignment, topic, class subject, etc)? Sometimes we don’t want to do things simply because we don’t care, or don’t see the point, already understand it and resist repetition, or find the subject boring. This question gets to their thoughts and feelings about the actual task.
Less Obvious Reasons For Refusal To Complete Assignments
As an occupational therapist, I treat my clients holistically. This means that I look at the whole person. My clients are not a diagnosis or a deficit – they are complex human beings who have past influences and future goals. This is why I reject the “ABC” model of behavior therapy (antecedent- behavior – consequence) as the antecedent could have occurred hours (or even days) before the behavior. If we only look at what happened immediately prior to a behavior (the refusal to complete assignments, in this case) we are often missing the bigger picture!
A recent example is another high school student. She is in honors classes and has been staying current with all class and homework – until a creative writing paper was assigned that was to be graded by a peer. She did most of the work, but when she found out that it was going to be peer-graded, she completely shut down. She admitted to me that she did not want anything to do with it, because she was afraid of what this peer might think of her, reading her personal stories. In this case, there was not an executive functioning deficit, but there still was a clear reason behind the refusal.
What If There Is No Reason?
You can go through the entire process, and you still may not get a real answer. Alternatively, the answer may be “I don’t want to” or “I hate school” or something similar, which you may perceive as defiant. At this point of continued refusal to complete assignments, you have a few choices. You can use immediate rewards, you can develop a contingency plan, or you can enact a behavioral contract.
- Immediate rewards are most effective with young children. Remember potty training when your kiddo got an M & M or skittle for sitting on the potty, one for using it, etc? This is the same. Immediate, tangible rewards are offered in exchange for a word written, a page completed – whatever you choose. They will eventually need to be faded so your child does not learn to only work for rewards. (I usually caution against food rewards for this reason. A sticker chart or marble jar is preferred, with a bigger reward earned).
- Contingency plan, or “first/then”. With a contingency plan, your child is basically in lockdown until they complete what you want or need them to. Their freedom to engage in desirable activities depends upon finishing homework, studying, a project, etc. First you finish the work, then you get to (play, go out with friends, watch TV, etc). There is a clear goal/task that needs to be completed before the child can do what they want. It may change from day to day. The contingency has higher stakes and is more demanding than an immediate reward. It helps children overcome short term motivation problems by increasing the value of what they need to do (the homework or chore) beyond a sticker or toy as a currency.
- Behavioral contract. This is a step above the contingency. It spells out specifically desired behaviors AND consequences if they do not occur. Whereas in a contingency, the child would not get to play, in a behavioral contract, the “then” part will occur if an only if the child completes the criteria set for earning the enjoyable activity. Ideally, you get your child or teen to “buy-in” by signing and thus, agreeing to, the contract.
Obviously, we parents would love for our children to have the self-motivation to want to succeed. That is not always the case. I am speaking from personal experience when I say that no amount of logic, or punishment, will make this child or teen motivated. You, as the parent, can use a contingency or behavioral plan to get back on track. Once you begin to see results, you can back off and allow more autonomy. Build this into the written plan, so your child or teen knows exactly what outcomes will get him or her more freedom.
Finding they “why” and addressing any other underlying issues, will ultimately solve the problem of refusal to complete assignments. By doing this as soon as possible, you are setting your child or teen up for future success – and with that, everyone wins!
For much more on executive functioning skill building, motivation, and parenting help, check out my self-paced online courses for parents of elementary aged kids with ADHD and parents of teens with ADHD. For more 1:1 help, fill out my ADHD Questionnaire to see if we are a good fit to work together.