What Do You Do When “My Child Refuses to…”

A professional posted seeking advice on Facebook to get a child to do something in school. (The child has autism, but the parable will apply to all kids, I promise.) The teacher had a reward system in place, but the child would say, “No,” and get up and walk away from the task laughing. My reply is edited for this blog. Clearly the child didn’t like the task. Kids with autism are like typical kids, squared; they like what they like and do what seems important to them. If any child is refusing, either the task is too hard, so they know they can’t, or, in this case, they don’t believe it matters.

Lots of regular kids refuse to do at least one kind of homeworScreen Shot 2016-08-11 at 11.30.13 AM.pngk (spelling? word problems? defining a word? long division worksheets?). Your kid who doesn’t have autism is probably more discrete than to say “No” and walk away. (When I was a teen, I’d do dishes to avoid homework, or do homework to avoid dishes, doing whichever was less painful at the time!) Stalling or seeming to lose the worksheets or homework are refusals, too.

So my reply to this professional was not to give a trick, or tip, or special technique. “No, I don’t have a tool for that. Sorry, you need to explain to the child in terms that are clear why the task itself matters.” Has your child gotten to long division yet? Long division can be done on any cell phone, so why is it part of the curriculum? If you can’t explain why, get a good teacher or computer programmer to. My answer about long division is: “When you understand how to shift and organize numbers, you can do great things for the rest of your life. If you don’t, and you rely on a machine for all your simple tasks, you will never make machines yourself. You will always need someone to fix them for you.”  This sort of explanation would never fly with a child with autism. For my son with autism, explanations often do work. If I can’t explain why something is important to practice or do, there’s a chance I’m wrong and he’s right. (With our first fish tank, saying “Don’t put your arm in the fish tank!” was one example of my abundant ignorance. He ignored me.)

So we’ve seen that explanations may be complicated. You may not even know why yourself. Or the child may remain unconvinced. What do you do then?

First, decide whether the task is at the right level for the child. Too easy or too hard are both de-motivating. Second, with the right task in hand, maybe the material is too abstract. You may be working on following directions. Which would you rather do? You can work with a child on following a summer recipe. Or you can tell a child to: get up, jump, get a pencil, and sit down to write his name. I vote for the smoothie.

That leads me to the ultimate step: Use a functional learning modality. If long division is “hard and dumb,” practice it while going to the supermarket. Decide which sale price is actually lower. If you cannot do this in your head, I can tell you the store has tricked you more often than you think. Which is cheaper, 25% off or buy one get the second free? (Read to the end if you want my finance and marketing M.B.A.’s answer.)  You know the learning objective. Find it in the world around you, and discuss it. You don’t have to know the answer, just know the question. Your child will see how important the subject is to you, at least, even if he or she doesn’t understand anything else.

A lot of times, educational tasks are hard to connect to functionality. I have lots of experience as mom of a young adult with autism (and myself am now a speech and language therapist). Believe me, if he does not appreciate the value personally right now of a learning activity, he will reject it . The kid thinks he knows better. You can’t keep your child from their own mistakes by sheer willpower. I’ve heard of tiger moms, and plenty of special needs moms are tigers, but the child has to be willing. Generally special needs children can only be pushed so far and no further.

That’s where “Natural Consequences” come in, otherwise stated as, Them’s the breaks. My son has played ice hockey at a beginner level for three years. When he was much younger, I had to drag or push him around the ice because he refused to skate. Then I took him for private skating lessons, and he wouldn’t stay. I hoped to get him ready to play on a team, but he didn’t get the point. Years later, we just showed up at hockey, he took one look, and he was eager to skate. In the past three years, we have not again had time and resources for private lessons. He needs more skills to progress. His beginner level of skating skill is the natural consequence of refusing lessons when he had the chance. We had a swimming pool when he was very young, so he thought he was a great swimmer. Then he tried out for a team, failed, and saw otherwise. Now he cannot get those years when I was trying to teach him swimming strokes back.

The difference now, with maturity, is that he understands that opportunities are not infinite. He tries as much and as hard as he can now  because he learned from those mistakes, and I appreciate him all the more for that.

If your situation is more about refusing school, I hope you are getting professional help and support from the school. The issues can run deep, or the causes may not be at all clear. Click here for a discussion of truancy, which is common but secretive, and school refusal, which is less common but explicit. Here’s wishing happy days for many parents when kids return to school, and those #firstday photos. For how stores trip you up with their complicated sales, and how I teach doing math in your head, read  a bonus posting…

“Feel the Math”

My favorite way to teach math is through natural situations. My son has never been able to write or type numbers independently because of his motor control issues. Nonetheless,  he does math in his head. I realized he’d learned how to calculate 15% from years of teachers doing “discrete trials” with him. They would have him do sUnknown-2omething 10 or more times in a row and calculate whether he’d done 85% correct before giving him a fraction of a mini M&M. With so many repetitions across months and years, he learned the feeling of 15% wrong, not the long division or multiplication.

When he was about 13, he went with a family to a restaurant. The mother told me he laughed when she said what she was going to tip for the meal. She checked, and she’d done it wrong. A tip is 15% of the total. I checked, and indeed he was good at calculating tips in his head and telling me which tip amount was better.

UnknownI used to be involved in pricing and gross and net sales calculations for a Kraft food product, so I know “sales” work. But are they really the best price? When we walk around the store with coupons or checking out sales, I always calculate in my head which price is better and ask him. Over time he’s more and more accurate. So here are some examples:

BOGO: buy one get one free. There are two types of BOGOs. The items are the same and at the same list price, or the items are not the same and probably are different prices.images-1

When we sold cups of yogurt, the items were the same original cost, so here’s the math.

Get 1 cup of yogurt for $1 + 1 cup of yogurt for free = 2 cups for $1 or 50 cents/cup. You would otherwise have paid $2. So you saved $1 of $2, or 50% off, for two.

Unknown.jpegWhen you go to a clothing store and see a BOGO, the items are not the same, so here’s the math.

Get 1 T-shirt at $10, and the second one free, instead of $9. You paid $10 for 2 t-shirts, but you would otherwise have paid $19. That means you saved 9/19, or 47%, not 50%.


Sales on top of Sales? The department stores, Macy’s especially, love to layer sales upon images-2.jpegsales. Take 50% off already reduced prices. If the original price reduction was 20%, how much money are you saving? You might say 70% (=20+50), but no. Pants originally marked at $50 were marked down 20% to $40, and now are 50% off that, or $20. How much did you actually save from the original price? Remember that’s all that counts. You paid $20 instead of $50, which is saving $30 on $50, or 60%. That’s a lot less than saving the 70% your brain on sale thought you were saving.


Okay, if we buy one at $1 and get a second at 70 cents, we paid $1.70. That’s instead of $2 for two. So we saved 15% on two. It doesn’t sound so great now, does it?

Now here’s another example.

Which is better, 30% off, or buy two and get one free?

If you were following along, you can guess the answer. You don’t have to prove it with calculations to me, but you should try to feel the math. Part of feeling the math is knowing that the retailer isn’t giving it away.

Feeling the math comes from practice in school and experience in the world. If someone doesn’t feel the math inside, they won’t be programming complex systems or fixing their own programmable self-driving cars. And they will give some of their money to retailers without even realizing it.



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