Please Don’t Call My Child a “Reluctant” Learner

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My child wants to learn every day.

Some days, she rejects the work I want her to do, tossing her math book aside and slithering out of her chair, but later I find her drawing pictures for a book she is making. She has the whole story in her head and it takes place in Brazil, the country we most recently studied in geography. She asks me for more information about Brazil so that she can include it in the pictures she is drawing. She clearly wants to learn. There is no reluctance there.

Reluctance means unwilling. She may be unwilling to do math today, rejecting the work that I gave her, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to learn. 

We spend part of each day focusing on reading. She is almost 9 and she does not read well. That is hard for me to write.

reluctant reader tips


My child is not reading fluently. We are working on it. She wants to read well. I have spent a lot of time figuring out why her reading is where it is right now, but that is for another post. What I want to tell you, is that she is not a “reluctant” reader. She is, in fact, very willing to learn how to read. But she is struggling.  There is a difference.

Time and again I read posts and articles that easily drop the label reluctant learner/reader/speller.  Sometimes there is helpful information in that article, sometimes not, but always, what stands out for me is the casual use of that term:  reluctant learner. 

I confess. I jumped on the “reluctant reader” labeling band wagon myself at one point when describing my oldest son’s path to reading. I truly didn’t think about using that term. It’s a catch phrase. It’s the thing that you say when you’re child isn’t excited about learning and isn’t progressing.

I take it back. What was happening for my son during that time was not reluctance–it had to do with readiness. He was not ready to progress further in his reading at that time.  Not long after that, he was ready. He picked up a chapter book he was intensely curious about and began reading. His reading took off and has soared ever since.

That experience taught me something:  Struggling is not the same as reluctant.  It also taught me that the next step is to figure out WHY my child is struggling.  Here are some common reasons I’ve seen in my own kids and in talking with other parents.

Why do some children struggle with learning?

The child is not ready to learn on an adult’s timetable.  

Kids do, in fact, learn when their brains are ready to learn. Study after study has proven this. Early reading instruction does not make kids come out ahead in the end. In fact, by about 5th grade, most kids are at about the same level of reading ability.

My son did not read at age 5 or age 6. He read at age 7, yet in public school kindergarten he was called a “reluctant reader”. 

I don’t think he was reluctant. I think he simply was not developmentally ready.

The child needs a different method of instruction.

Let’s look at the subject of History. My daughter is bored to tears by history, as I was at her age. I only became interested in history as an adult and now I can’t get enough of it.

Wait, did I just say she is bored by history? That’s actually not true. She is obsessed with the American Girl Doll historical series of books. She made and uses an historical timeline based on these books. She now loves all things Civil War (because that was Addy’s time), Colonial/Revolutionary War (because that was Felicity’s time) and Pioneer times (Kristen).

She thinks ancient Egypt is awesome because we read Story of the World, mummified a Barbie Doll and acted out stories.

It’s only when I bring out boring texts and start blathering on about dates and Generals that her eyes glaze over. I try to keep a lid on that approach, but sometimes my new enthusiasm for history gets the best of me. 

 The child has special needs.

Maybe they have fine motor difficulties or dysgraphia. Maybe there are auditory processing difficulties that make hearing instructions or new information challenging. Perhaps there are other learning disabilities, attention issues, vision or hearing issues.

If so, aren’t these the real issues? Having dysgraphia, for example, is very, very, very different than being a “reluctant writer” and effective strategies to address it will make all the difference, including boosting the confidence of the child who doesn’t want to write. 

The child’s previous learning experiences are influencing their current learning.

Have they had negative experiences with learning? Are they feeling defeated and low on confidence? My oldest son insisted on doing things perfectly or not at all. We worked together for a long time to make mistakes an acceptable, even welcome, part of learning. 

My daughter had some early struggles with math and decided math was truly horrible and should be avoided at all costs. As soon as I placed any math book on the table she would begin to complain and declare that math was awful. It became a rather amusing habit, especially when her preschool aged brother began to complain, too and he didn’t even have a math book of his own at the time. 

It took a little convincing that what we were going to work on was not the same as what she had struggled with. Before long, the reactive complaining stopped. She still has some math struggles but we work through them. At her request, we don’t do math every day. At my request, we do math two or three times a week because knowing how to add and subtract numbers, to identify fractions and tell time and count money are important skills to have in life.

When is a child truly a reluctant learner? 

When he or she has zero interest in the topic, then I think we can use the term “reluctant learner”. This applies to adults as well. If you told me I had to learn all about the history of carburetors, I would fall asleep from boredom. I would procrastinate. I would suddenly remember I needed to scrub all the toilets in my house rather than complete my assignment on carburetor history.  

But if you told me I had to learn all about how to take the best pictures with my DSLR camera (I actually do need to learn more about this, I wish someone would make me do it), then I’d be reading books and googling stuff and playing with my camera to the point where I completely lose track of time and forget to fix meals for my kids.

I would be reluctant to learn about carburetors. I would be labeled a Reluctant Carburetor Learner. 

Which leads me to ask this of myself:  Is it my child who is reluctant or unwilling to learn? Or is it me who is unwilling to change the material? Or to wait until my child is ready? 

If I wanted my daughter, as a two-year-old, to expand the variety of foods she ate, I would present her with some new options at mealtimes, perhaps some peas. I would encourage her to taste the peas. But I would not force feed her peas. This would not make her enjoy peas the next time I served them to her. This would not make her realize that peas are a healthy food.  

So why do we force feed learning? Perhaps it is how we were taught so it’s very ingrained in us, that learning must be passive, that children must be taught certain things on a specific timetable. And, as adults, we can see the benefit of learning things like math and history that are not evident to children. So we push.

Although I am far from perfect at this, I am trying to pay more attention to what my kids show me about what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. When they are struggling, I am trying to figure out why and if there is something I can change–my material, my approach, my expectations. 

Can we please stop calling our children reluctant learners? As parents and educators, can we remove that from our vocabulary? Can we recognize when kids are struggling? Can we change our approach accordingly? Or are we the reluctant ones?

Our kids are willing. Lets honor their path to learning. 

reluctant reader

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