Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson
Question: The greatest power struggle in our home is over school assignments. Our fifth grader simply will not do them! When we try to force him to study, he sits and stares, doodles — gets up for water and just kills time. Furthermore, we never know for sure what he's supposed to be doing. Why is he like that?
DR. DOBSON: Let me offer a short discourse on school achievement, based on years of interaction with parents. I served as a teacher, a high school counselor and a school psychologist. As such, I became very well-acquainted with children's learning patterns. The kind of self-discipline necessary to succeed in school appears to be distributed on a continuum from one extreme to the other.
Students at the positive end of the scale (I'll call them Type I) are by nature rather organized individuals who care about details. They take the educational process very seriously and assume full responsibility for assignments given. They also worry about grades, or at least, they recognize their importance. To do poorly on a test would depress them for several days. They also like the challenge offered in the classroom. Parents of these children do not have to monitor their progress to keep them working. It is their way of life — and it is consistent with their temperaments.
At the other end of the continuum are the boys and girls who do not fit in well with the structure of the classroom (Type II). If their Type I siblings emerge from school cum laude, these kids graduate "Thank You, Laude!" They are sloppy, disorganized and flighty. They have a natural aversion to work and love to play. They can't wait for success and they hurry on without it. Like bacteria that gradually become immune to antibiotics, the classic underachievers become impervious to adult pressure. They withstand a storm of parental protest every few weeks and then, when no one is looking, they slip back into apathy. They don't even hear the assignments being given in school and seem not to be embarrassed when they fail to complete them. And, you can be sure they drive their parents to distraction.
For many, if not most, of these kids, their "battles" over schoolwork and homework represent a conflict between their basic temperament and the frustration experienced and transmitted to them by their parents. A strict, but not punitive approach in which accountability for schoolwork and homework is transferred back from the parents to the child will effectively motivate them to assume responsibility for their work for many of them. An excellent, practical description of this approach is provided by psychologist John Rosemond's "Ending the Homework Hassle" (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1990).
In unusually difficult cases, or when the previous approach has failed, the child may have a neurologically based learning disability or the complex of behaviors known as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). The cause of ADHD is currently unknown, but may include neurological or biological factors in some cases. Stimulant medication has been found to be effective for relieving the attention and impulsivity features of ADHD behaviors, although this beneficial effect of these medications is not specific or limited to individuals with ADHD.
Preliminary research has indicated success for ADHD management with a potentially promising behavioral approach outlined by Dr. David Stein in his recent book "Ritalin is Not the Answer" (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999). Other authorities, including Dr. Edward Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey, writing in "Driven to Distraction" (Simon & Schuster, 1995), recommend the use of Ritalin or other medication for children with a confirmed diagnosis of ADHD. Your pediatrician will help you decide which approach to take.