Help for the Shut Down Learner

by | Jan 20, 2020 | Teaching Tips | 5 comments

Do you have a child who shuts down when it comes to learning?

This week’s Mailbox Monday speaks to this situation.

“My son IMMEDIATELY says “I don’t know” to ANY educational question. No thought or attempt to try.  Any suggestions for that?  Have any of your kids shut down before even trying?”

help for the shut down reluctant learner

Why Kids ‘Shut Down’

There are a variety of reasons that a child will shut down when it comes to learning.

Usually, it has to do with a combination of factors such as stress, fear, and lack of focus.

For kids with language-based learning difficulties, learning the basics of reading, writing, and spelling (and sometimes math) is a long process – even with the right methods. It takes focus and discipline to push through daily lessons. For most kids, it’s just hard.

If a child has been in school, learning these skills is even more difficult. Many kids with dyslexia in school experience trauma from being embarrassed or anxious about their learning differences which can result in a sense of learned helplessness. “Nothing I do makes learning easier, I may as well not try.”

It’s not just kids in school who can feel this way though. Until I really understood my kids’ dyslexia, I did many of the same things well-meaning but uninformed teachers in school did.

I nagged my kids. “Why can’t you remember this?” “Pay attention!” “How many times do I have to tell you?”

I was disappointed with my kids and my words and demeanor let them know that. I thought that by ‘shaming’ them into ‘trying harder’ they would ‘snap out of it’.

This is a lot for a child to handle and one of the most common ways kids deal with their frustration is to simply stop trying.

A child’s ability to focus can also have an impact on their attitude towards school work. Researchers have found that between 40-60% of people with dyslexia also have some form of attention deficit. This is another important factor when it comes to learning. It can be hard for a person who doesn’t have an attention deficit to understand and believe that the child with ADHD really does want to focus and finish their lessons, but often simply cannot.

Read this article on what every parent of a child with dyslexia should know about ADHD.

How to Motivate a Reluctant Learner

Whatever the cause of your child’s resistance, there are things that you can do to help ignite their confidence and enjoyment of the learning process.

Take a break. I know this seems counterintuitive to say the least, especially since we are constantly aware of how ‘behind’ our kids are compared to traditional learners at their age. I’m talking about taking a break from academics for a time to focus on your child’s interests and fostering a trusting relationship. This is sometimes called deschooling. I’ve written an entire post on ideas for taking a time of deschooling here.

Interest-led Learning. Trying to get your kids to read or write can be difficult. Try allowing them to choose their own books to read or subjects for their papers. It’s okay to tailor your curriculum to meet your needs.

Strengths-based learning. If your child struggles with writing, consider having them put on a performance, sing a song, or create a Powerpoint presentation on the subject. Allow them to use their unique strengths to show what they know.

Learn more about strengths-based learning here.

Teach them about the power of a growth mindset. Researcher Carol Dweck uncovered an interesting pattern in kids’ attitudes towards learning. Essentially, a student’s mindset about what they are capable of learning has a HUGE impact on their day-to-day experience at school.

In a nutshell, kids who were praised for their effort were more likely to keep trying. They had a growth mindset. Kids who were praised for the outcome of their effort (i.e. grades, finishing an entire assignment, meeting some criteria) were quick to shut down if they struggled to meet that criteria. They had a fixed mindset. Be sure to show your kids that you see them trying. Notice any extra effort. Encourage them to try. This mindset shift doesn’t happen overnight (ask me how I know!) so keep at it and watch their mindset shift.

Learn more about growth mindsets and how to teach your kids to have one here:

What is a Growth Mindset and How Can it Motivate Your Kids

How to Teach Kids to Have a Growth Mindset

Change your own mindset.

As teachers and parents, we can change some of our own mindsets about learning.

Believe in your kids’ potential. Most of us grew up in a traditional school environment and gravitate towards that in our own teaching. It can feel ‘normal’ to feel like a good teacher when our kids put out good work. We feel bad about ourselves and our ability to teach when our kids struggle to learn.

We tend to focus on the output of our kids or the outcome of our teaching.

Kids with dyslexia don’t lack intelligence or the capacity to learn. We need to believe this and teach our kids to believe it too.

Having to work hard is okay. While we are all born with unique gifts and talents. It is what we do with them that transforms us from ordinary to extraordinary. Some people have more ‘natural ability’ than others, but how we use our abilities affects our potential. Don’t be afraid to push your kids to work hard. Just be sure to praise their effort.

Mistakes are part of learning. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach them to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.

Growth Mindset Tips for Teachers

More information on helping the ‘shut down’ learner

Most of us have had kids who resisted learning at one point or another. Don’t beat yourself up. Learn more strategies for helping discouraged learners in this series of posts: Help for the Discouraged Learner

How have you helped your reluctant learner? Share in the comments below!


  1. Annette Miller

    Perfectly timed for what I needed to hear and learn more about today. Thank you!

  2. Beth

    I have three boys that fit straight into what you are saying and they certainly get it honestly!!! I, too have found myself here over and over. Thank you for this extremely helpful advice. Each child is uniquely different but the more I learn about them and myself the more compassionate I become on this homeschool journey. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that it is perfectly okay to “think outside the box” when teaching them. Always looking for helpful tips and advice 🙂

  3. Kris

    Great post! Love these ideas to try, especially the growth mindset! I recommend your website to families often. Thanks for providing great encouragement, help, and resources for families with struggling learners.

      • Leslie

        This article is more helpful for when you’re finding out your kids have a learning issue. Mine struggles with dyscalculia and dyslexia. She is 14 and has greatly excelled with reading. Math, not so much.
        However, she loathes every single thing about school. There is no subject she likes or that she’s interested in. I don’t have the option of completely unschooling because my husband doesn’t like that. Nothing I have done has sparked any interest with her.
        Most of the time, she just wants to hurry through everything so she can do whatever she wants, ie: playing, swinging, playing games on the phone.
        She has no idea how easy she has it. I haven’t required her to do tons of things. We usually stick to two subjects a day, and if I leave it to her, she’ll finish both subjects in 15 minutes. I can’t seem to get her to be a little serious about this. One day, we won’t be around. I’d like her to be able to tell time, count money, some of the every day tasks she’ll need to know how to do and she’s flat out uninterested.


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