When Your Child Gets Stuck: 12 Tips for Teaching A Tough School Subject

I’m not the world’s nicest mom.

At least that’s what my kids claim when I have to teach them a tough school subject.

How can we encourage our kids to persevere through a tough school subject that they would deem akin to being in a medieval torture chamber? I have no perfect, one-size-fits-all answers. But here are 12 things I've discovered that can help.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

CHILD: I can’t do this!!!! (moaning, crying, holding head in hands for additional emphasis)

ME: I’m sorry it’s difficult for you! Do you understand what the assignment is about?

CHILD: (pouting) Yes…

ME:  Do you need me to explain it further?

CHILD: No…

ME: (trying to stay calm) Then it sounds like we just need to buckle down and take care of it, right?

CHILD: But I don’t want to…

You can fill in the rest, right? You’ve had these circular conversations with your kids too?

Every child seems to go through these seasons where they just get stuck and homeschool isn’t the “beautiful learning discovery” promised at the homeschool conventions. The fact is that some subjects are tougher than others (and of course what is considered “tough” will vary from child to child).

As a parent, it can be painful to watch our children struggle and endure. Homeschool moms have the incredibly tenuous job of being both the person giving the hard assignment and the one cheering a child through to its completion. It can be tricky at best to navigate these waters, and there are no simple answers.

Wait… Shouldn’t We Just Change the Assignment?

There may be a small section of the homeschool population who say that if a homeschool child is given a school assignment that’s too hard for them (or is about a topic they’re not interested in), then it’s the homeschool mom’s job to re-think the assignment and make it a better fit for the child.

I’m sorry… I just don’t buy that. Especially for students in higher grades.

Can my husband walk into his job and say, “You know, I really don’t like this work project you’ve given me because it’s not interesting to me and it’s difficult. Can I do this other one instead?”

Uh, no.

In my home, we’re always talking to our kids about “the real world.” And in the real world, we can’t always modify, alter, change or substitute one thing for something else that’s more comfortable.

Now, do we purposely design an assignment that we know a child will find torturous? (Contrary to my children’s beliefs, no). Instead, we do our best to pick curriculum and topics that kids will like. At least in most situations, and where we are able.

But truly, there will be times that a child just needs to get ‘er done (as my Louisiana friend would say).

There are specific subjects that a child needs to learn in school–whether or not they are easy, or that they are the child’s favorite. These topics are often critical building blocks to higher learning (such as basic essay writing skills), and as a child advances in his schooling, many of these “less-than-favorite” subjects are required courses as part of college admission.

So… here we are back to square one: How can we encourage our kids to persevere through subjects that they would deem akin to being in a medieval torture chamber?

Again, no perfect answers. But here are 12 things I’ve discovered that can help.

12 Tips for Persevering Through a Tough School Subject

First, three obvious ones:

1) Take it slow.

Sometimes simply slowing things down can make all the difference.

2) Get outside help if needed.

Think tutors, older brothers and sisters, family members, neighbors, other homeschoolers, etc.

3) Consider switching up the teaching method or curriculum.

This isn’t always the answer, but it may be. Is there a simplified version of the subject matter? Is there a way to teach the concept using games? My “Recommended Homeschooling Resources” page has some good ideas as well.

These are the first line approach to tackling a tough school subject.

But, what happens when we’ve done these first three and are still awash in a sea of extreme frustration?

I’ve totally been there and know that feeling of helplessness all too well. So… let me offer up some other suggestions.

1) Relationships trump everything. Period.

If the drama over a tough school subject continues day-after-day and is causing a rift in your relationship, it’s better to take a break from the subject. Spend some one-on-one time with the child (perhaps on a parent-child date) and really get to the root issue. Listen to why they say the subject is so challenging, and show sympathy. And, as gently as possible, share your intentions and reasons about why this must be part of their current learning.

2) If needed, let some other things go.

Is the child struggling with more than one tough school subject? Consider modifying or adjusting things so that you’re only tackling one tough school subject at a time. I’ve found that my kids really respond to this (and feel listened to) when I say, “I’m willing to temporarily lessen your load in these other areas so that we can work through this tough school subject.”

3) Be your child’s cheerleader.

Sympathize and do your best to convince him that you’re on his side. Share repeatedly (with a cheerful heart, as much as you are able!) that you are on his team and you believe that he can do this. Give specific reasons why you think he’ll be successful, recalling other times when he had to push through something else that was difficult (whether school-related or not).

4) Let grace and understanding (not perfection) reign.

Learning is a messy, jerky process that can be five steps forward and three steps back. Focus on the progress being made, even if it’s slower than you’d like. Express over and over that you’re not expecting perfection, but that you’re looking for a positive attitude and willingness to move toward the goal. Acknowledge and celebrate success, no matter how small.

5) Find other avenues for him to be successful.

Does he feel energized by building and creating? Or maybe he has a wicked three-point shot on the basketball court. Do your best to make space in his schedule so that he can enjoy activities that counteract the difficulty of the tough school subject and remind them of his many gifts.

6) Share stories of triumph through trials.

When you’re on a difficult path, it helps to know that you’re not alone, right? And often, it’s helpful to teach these truths in non-confrontational ways. Thankfully, we have so many bible testimonies of real people who passionately persevered (Hebrews 11-12 gives a good starter list). There are also many great books and movies which communicate these truths (many of them also true stories). Here are a few of our family’s favorite stories of trial and triumph (obviously there’s a wide range of stuff here…preview each to determine if they’re a good fit for your kids):

You can read the entire list of 30 movies and books here.

7) Be willing to let him walk the tough path.

One of the hardest parts of being a mom is watching our kids suffer… through anything! Whether that’s sickness, a broken friendship, unfair life circumstances or yes, even tough school subjects. As moms, we want to fix it and make it better, but when we do that, it can short-change the growth that God wants to do in them. Scripture explains it this way: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:2-4

8) Encourage him to see the character training possibilities present.

Remind him of God’s love for him and that God intends to grow us through difficult circumstances. What specific character traits can he learn from this situation? Remind him of this frequently, even sharing encouraging scripture verses or stories. Help him to keep his eyes on this prize.

9) Stay connected to God and listen for his leading.

If we’ve chosen to let God lead our homeschooling, then we can trust that He will give us step-by-step guidance for helping our child walk through this situation. I can’t tell you how many times He has whispered something specific to do or say in a given moment that truly made all the difference. He is on our side and wants to help us (and our child)!

Your Turn:

What practical tips have you found helpful for encouraging a child to persevere through a tough school subject? Are you walking through one of these seasons now with your child? Let’s share stories and ideas.

About Alicia Michelle

As a wife and mom to four passionate kids, Alicia Michelle loves encouraging other moms with practical tips for joy-filled living in everyday life, especially in parenting, marriage, faith and health.Alicia is the owner/editor of Your Vibrant Family; the author of Plan to Be Flexible, The Back to School Survival Manual; and the creator/producer of the "7 Days to a Less Angry Mom Online Video Course,", Christ-Centered Christmas Resources and My Memory Box Organizing System. In addition, she is a monthly contributor for several popular family blogs, including Crosswalk.com.Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Leave a Reply 6 comments

christinefield - April 12, 2015 Reply

So thoughtful and real! You are a wise woman. Thanks for sharing this.

    Alicia Kazsuk - April 12, 2015 Reply

    Christine, thank you! 🙂

Lacey Charrene - April 12, 2015 Reply

I can’t say I agree, but we are an unschooling family so there may be the difference in style. Sometimes we hit something my son doesn’t like and we just circle around to it another time, but we eventually get there. I totally love your tips and admire your method momma! Every family and child is different and although we have different methods the outcome is the same. 🙂 #laceyslegacy

    Alicia Kazsuk - April 12, 2015 Reply

    Lacey, thank you for acknowledging that although we have differences in style we still have the same (great) outcome! I do agree that circling around to something later is a good idea… and sometimes we do this as well. It’s just that as my kids have gotten older, I’ve seen a spirit of “Well, that’s too hard or it’s not my favorite so I don’t want to do it” develop in their hearts. And while we always seek to make learning as interesting as possible, there can also be great value in encouraging a child to persevere through something that’s difficult. I appreciate your take on the post as an unschooler! I totally respect what you’re doing as well! Blessings to you!

      Lacey Charrene - April 12, 2015 Reply

      I am so happy you took my comment as a positive Alicia! Yeah!!! And I really appreciate your response. I can totally understand about the “spirit”. I agree that “persevering through something that is difficult” is very important. Great discussion. I would love to trade homeschooling days with you sometime to try out your style. 🙂

        Alicia Kazsuk - April 12, 2015 Reply

        Absolutely! There’s more than one way to homeschool, that’s for sure!! And we can all learn from each other! Have a wonderful evening! 🙂

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