What Should I Do If My Preschooler Doesn’t Want to Learn?

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RoShamBo Homeschooling author's child with a very disappointed expression on his face
He just wants to knock the Tobbles over… clearly a little bit grumpy about my color questions today.

Our culture has some very outdated ideas about education. Our schools evolved out of historical trends, and there has never been a time when we as a society have pulled back and decided, “None of this makes sense based on what we know about kids today. It’s time to throw all of this out and start from scratch, designing schools founded on the research about how children actually learn.”

When you’re coming up with your own homeschool curriculum, you actually do have that option. You can design a school for your kids based on real research about how kids best learn—and how they enjoy learning.

Reasons Kids Don’t Want to Learn (and What to Do)

1. What you’re teaching doesn’t interest them

We follow a homeschool philosophy called ‘unschooling.’ The philosophy is founded on the idea that all children are naturally curious and enjoy learning… our role as educators is to provide them resources and opportunities to learn about what interests them rather than to try to convince them to be interested in what we think they should learn (or what mom blogs or Pinterest told us they should be learning).

Ultimately, children will end up learning all of the same things. Unschooling just allows them to learn it in a way that doesn’t involve constant struggling or pushing against a child’s natural passions. I’m incredibly type-A, so it’s hard for me to not have a homeschool schedule with a yearlong day planner listing every topic my son will learn on precisely the day I want to teach it. But this is truly what works best for how kids learn.

For example, my son went through a phase where he was obsessed with smoke alarms. He looked up and noticed them one day, and suddenly he couldn’t stop talking to me about them for about two months. I explained how they worked, and we discussed that explanation 4-5 times a day for TWO MONTHS. We read books about fire trucks every day for TWO MONTHS. When we went on nature walks, all he wanted to do was be on the look out for fire hydrants and wouldn’t glance at a flower or cat for even a second for TWO MONTHS. Okay, his hyper-focus on this one subject might seem like we neglected a ton of other subjects. But his vocabulary and communication skills went through the roof after explaining to me the intricacies of how smoke alarms work and what happens in case of a fire hundreds and hundreds of times. And on our walks, he just naturally would count the fire hydrants he saw—”Mama! Another one! That’s 3 so far!”—so he was practicing counting too. Reading the same books over and over again is actually amazing for helping children notice the spelling of words and start learning beginning sounds. As the pictures start to get tired on the 500th read, they’ll naturally start looking at the words… and asking questions!

He learned all the same homeschool subjects. But HE chose the topic he was most passionate about at the time.

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

2. What you’re teaching is too hard, and they don’t know how to communicate that yet

Let’s be honest. At every age, human beings can be pretty bad at effectively communicating that a task we’ve been assigned is too difficult for us. As adults, if we get assigned a project at work that’s too hard, we might procrastinate until the last minute and then blame the awful job we do on the time crunch. If a teenager gets assigned a speech or a paper that’s too hard, maybe they’d respond by skipping school or just not turning it in rather than getting a low grade. None of us want to feel like failures.

Little kids are exactly the same. Except their methods are a little bit more hard to spot. When we give them an activity that’s too hard, they tend to react by getting easily distracted, becoming hyperactive, or generally behaving in intentionally obnoxious or destructive ways. This is tricky to notice because little kids might ALSO act in these ways when they’re tired, hungry, grumpy, or experiencing too much change.

But if you give your kiddo a new printable or introduce a new activity to them and they start showing these signs, chances are high that it’s just a little bit too hard for them to understand right now, and they don’t know how to communicate that to you. It also could be that’s it’s too hard because they’re tired or hungry or in a bad mood.

Whatever the reason, trust their instincts. Try it again in a month or two. One of the major benefits of homeschooling is that we can customize our curriculum to the needs of our kids rather than being forced to do what works for the greatest number of kids in a classroom and letting the kids who are struggling just fall behind. We’re not on a deadline. Your kids will learn it when they’re cognitively and developmentally ready.

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3. The way you’re teaching it is boring

Sorry, I’m not going to sugarcoat it.

How old were you when you first started truly benefiting from long worksheets with a series of repetitive problems? I remember math worksheets started being helpful for rote practice around 7th or 8th grade. And Spanish worksheets were always really helpful when I started learning in high school. Math and Spanish require doing the same thing over and over again to learn. But I wasn’t able to actually appreciate worksheets for this benefit until late middle school, around the time when I became self-motivated to get straight As and wanted to study for the sake of studying. I’m also a very visual learner; many people aren’t, and some people never benefit from worksheets.

Young children need learning to be fun. They don’t have the attention spans yet for long, boring worksheets, and their brains haven’t developed the higher reasoning that tells them, “This worksheet is boring, but it really IS the best way to learn, and I want to be successful in this class. Success is more important to me than being bored for an hour” that you might find in a middle school or high school student.

The good thing is that you can take EXACTLY what you’re trying to teach them and make it fun. I honestly believe that there is a way to make every topic exciting for preschool and kindergarten students (and for most grade school topics too!). You just have to find the right kind of activity that teaches that same skill—whether one-to-one correspondence, beginning sounds, handwriting, or whatever else—in a way that’s fun for kids!

And about homeschool worksheets… they’re definitely not all created equally. I aim to create homeschool printables that are fun and feel like a game for kids rather than ones that are like the high school Math and Spanish worksheets we did (lots of the same boring questions) but on topics for preschoolers. I like doing printables where they color while they learn or they get to look at cute pictures of animals or trucks or other things they really like. And if my son isn’t into something I print for him, I know it’s either because it’s too hard or because it’s too boring, and I come up with something else!

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

With homeschooling, we don’t have to have kids sitting in rows, trying to stay awake for a boring lecture or furrowing their brows because they don’t understand what the teacher is saying. We’re blessed in that we can design lesson plans that our children are passionate about, customized exactly to where they’re at developmentally, and make adaptations whenever we notice that our children aren’t understanding the material or are getting bored with the type of activity.

Let’s not get bogged down by the old ways of thinking. We can make homeschooling exactly what our children need!


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