I wrote about ADHD And Refusal To Complete Assignments more than 2 years ago, and it remains my most read blog to this date. I followed it up with Refusal To Do Schoolwork because it is such an important topic. I understand how frustrating it can be for parents who just want their child to do what is asked, whether it’s schoolwork, chores, or even brushing their teeth before bed, to be met with defiance, avoidance and/or aggression. As we approach the last few months of the academic school year, I would like to revisit the ideas from my previous blogs and expand on them.
In my early years as a pediatric occupational therapist, I had many clients who refused to do some of the tasks or activities that I was trying to get them to do. My documentation would include the behaviors that I observed, such as “(Child) refused to engage in using button and zipper boards to practice fasteners” or “(Child) ran away from puzzle matching activity” or “(Child) threw the pencil and tore up the worksheet.” I didn’t know that my clients were having a hard time, and I instead assumed that they just “didn’t want to” do what I asked.
As I became a more seasoned therapist, I began to understand that I needed to find the “why” behind the communication of work refusal, rather than the “what”. We already know the what: it’s the yelling, crying, running away, hiding, lying and more. It is those frustrating behaviors that scream, quite literally, “I can’t do what you are asking of me!” I needed to reframe the behaviors. Furthermore, if I didn’t seek the reason why a child was refusing, there was no way to keep moving forward. No reward or punishment is going to durably solve the problem that is causing the refusal. It might temporarily provide an incentive, or fear of a consequence, but it does not address the problem.
Why is Work Refusal so Common in Kids with ADHD?
ADHD affects one’s executive functioning skills. The skills needed to do schoolwork or homework include task initiation, time management, focused attention, persistence, organization, problem solving and working memory. The ability to inhibit impulsive or emotional responses to avoid distractions or getting overwhelmed is also necessary. Some or all of the skills may be challenges for kids with ADHD. Further, brains like to do what is comfortable – and playing video games, scrolling a phone, or doing anything but challenging or repetitive work is absolutely more comfortable! Kids are already spending seven or more hours a day at school, often sitting, and coming home to the prospect of doing more work can be so daunting, that they would rather lie, refuse, battle and face the consequences over enduring the discomfort of just doing their work.
While this paints a rather bleak picture, there are solutions that are worth trying. I am going to offer a few different strategies to help your child get over the hump of work refusal.
Strategy 1: Problem Solving
Problem solving for work refusal entails digging for a deeper understanding on the parents’ part by asking your child targeted questions. I always start with empathy. I say something like “It looks like you are having a really hard time with this homework”. Do not immediately ask why! In fact, you won’t be asking “why” at all. For now, just hold space for your child to be heard and understood. You do not need to agree with them, but if you disagree, please don’t jump in with “but it’s only one page of homework. It’s easy and you like math! You could have been done already if you just started it!” This is not helpful and it dismisses their feelings as unworthy of validation.
The next step is to question without asking why. This may sound like:
- Which part of the homework is challenging?
- What don’t you understand?
- What is getting in the way of starting?
- What (skills/materials/help) do you need to start?
- How much time do you think this will take?
- Who can help you?
Asking questions like these changes the dynamic from demand/refusal to one of mutual awareness around the barriers and moving toward problem solving. Will your child magically agree to do what you are asking after you use some of the above questions? No – there is no magic in this and it may not work immediately or at all. But I do guarantee that it feels better to be heard, and that it can help you to avoid a power struggle.
Think about if you had a boss who asked you to write a report and you were having difficulty getting the data together. If your boss came up to you angrily and demanded that you finish it today, despite you clearly struggling, how would that feel? Then, when you tried to express that you need more time, or some help, they interrupt you and say “if you would just stop complaining, you could have had it done already! I guess you won’t be going out to lunch with the rest of your co-workers. You need to stay in and finish this work.” Would that sort of exchange give you the skills that you need to complete it? Of course not! But if you were able to communicate that it wasn’t coming together and you needed some additional tools and help to complete it, and your boss listened intently and empathetically so you felt heard and supported, it would be much easier to move forward and meet that expectation.
Notice that how you, as the parent, approach the situation can make all the difference. It begins with your response to the refusal, then asking questions to understand more. You may need to ask pointed questions about the specific subject matter. For example, many of the kids and teens that I work with struggle with writing. I always ask a series of questions to understand the why, because writing is such a multi-faceted activity.
Which part is hard?
- Holding the pencil
- Forming letters
- Remembering all the rules of grammar, punctuation, etc.
- Thinking of what to write (organizing thoughts)
- Writing complete sentences
You can ask similar questions for math, foreign languages, social studies, science, or any topic. Just break it down into as many parts as you can so your child is able to communicate which parts are hard. Knowing this information can really help you to be able to understand what is getting in your child’s way of doing the work. A bonus that you may discover during this process is that your child does understand quite a bit, but it is just one or two specific hurdles that is keeping them stuck. It is not typically “everything” even though it feels that way! The awareness of exactly which parts resonates with kids themselves, too, who end up thinking “oh yeah! I do know what to write and I’m great at writing itself, but I get mixed up with spelling and grammar and end up erasing and starting over a lot”.
Strategy Two: It’s Your Call
A second, different strategy that is advocated by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson in their book, The Self- Driven Child, is to take a step back and let your child make the decision to do or not to do the work. The authors call this strategy “It’s Your Call”. It is not just for work refusal, but it can work nicely.
This strategy does not entail letting your child or teen take over or walk all over you, as it may sound on the surface. Instead, it involves having a discussion about the pros and cons of doing or not doing the work, then allowing them to make an informed decision – and to endure whatever consequences come from it. The authors of The Self-Driven Child have some helpful language to model, which sounds something like “I trust you to take the information that you have and make a decision that is right for you. I will be here to help if you need it.” (Not throwing your hands up in the air and saying with exasperation, “Fine! You do it! I’m out!”)
By placing your child in the driver’s seat, you are giving them agency over their own life. Your child is not going to be a child forever, and this is how we begin the process of extracting ourselves as parents from every detail of their life. Giving kids more control teaches them to be competent. They will make mistakes at first, but they will learn from the mistakes.
If you are using this strategy with your child or teen for work refusal, be prepared to allow them to truly have the autonomy to make their own decision, then assess how it worked out after the fact. You may want to practice this with lower stakes situations at first so you both get a little more comfortable. It is not easy for parents, especially parents of children who have ADHD, to take a giant step back.
If you have been battling with your child over work refusal for the entire school year, this is a great time to try something different. If you would like help with these strategies, complete my questionnaire and I can work with your family on making work refusal and all of the challenges that go along with it a thing of the past.