What to Do When Teens Refuse to Do Homework or Fail a Class


September 2, 2014 by middleearthnj

Some teens are naturally motivated and others are not. Some teens are able to succeed at school with ease, and others struggle. But, what is a parent to do when their teen simply refuses to do homework or is suddenly failing a class? Experts recommend parents work to discover the root cause and creatively problem solve with their teen.

j0178426Ask Your Teen

Most of the time, parents feel a little shocked when they are confronted with a school problem. Maybe your teen has outright refused to do any work, or maybe you received a notice from the teacher, or maybe you got a disappointing surprise on their interim report. Whatever has brought the problem to your attention, it’s important to take a deep breath and work to understand the issue. The first step is to ask your teen what is going on. Notice the word ask. That means you don’t start the conversation with accusations, yelling, blame, or threats. Instead, enter into the conversation with a sense of curiosity to see if you can help uncover the possible reasons why he or she isn’t getting their homework done or passing the class.

Determine the Root Cause

If your teen refuses to do homework or is failing a class, don’t jump to the conclusion that he is simply acting out of defiance. More than likely, there is some underlying problem(s) contributing to the issue. For example, stress, bullying issues at school, classes that are too advanced, test-taking anxiety, too many absences, learning disabilities, and depression are all possible problems that can contribute to behavior changes. Remember that when high school students fall behind in their classes for any reason (absence, material too difficult, bad test-taking day), catching up can be quite difficult. When grades begin to plummet, many teens give up. Talk to them about their struggles. Ask them: “How is your current situation different from how you would like it to be?”

Separately, parents should talk to the teen’s teacher to obtain their thoughts and perspectives. Again, parents should enter such a conversation with an open mind and a willingness to listen to the teacher’s opinion.

Develop Solutions with Your Teen

Once parents feel like they understand the problem, they should sit down with their teenager and brainstorm a list of possible solutions to the given situation. They can ask their son or daughter what they have already tried before (whether it’s in this situation or in similar situations in the past), and what outcomes they experienced. Ask them to predict likely consequences, both positive and negative, for each possibility. Teens should be encouraged to not limit themselves, but to come up with as many options as possible, even if they seem unrealistic, because this creative process may help generate even better solutions. Once you have made a list of options together, help your teen narrow them down. For each option, consider how realistic it is, how likely the teen would be to implement it, and the potential obstacles.

Sometimes, homework or grade battles simply need a creative solution. For example, some teens are willing to stay after school to complete their homework, so long as they don’t have to do work at home. Other teens need some control over when they are going to do their work, so they may need to unwind for an hour after school and then do their work. Teens who are failing due to a learning disability or missed schoolwork, might be willing to work with a tutor. Parents should offer their own ideas, but MUST be willing to try their teen’s suggestions and ideas. The process of identifying the problem and developing the solution will empower your child, give them a sense of ownership in fixing the problem, and will ultimately give them confidence when they overcome the issue.

Additionally, parents should help their teen establish healthy study habits that will allow him/her to be successful. Some good study habits include: creating a designated homework time and space, removing distractions including electronics, being available to help your teen when they have a problem or get frustrated, teaching them time management skills, and helping them to get organized. You can learn more from our previous blog, Good Study Habits in Teens.

Establish Expectations and Rules

In general, parents should establish rules and expectations about homework based on their individual child. For example, if you have a teen who is fairly responsible with his homework most of the time, it may be appropriate to allow him/her to face the natural consequences of a bad grade or detention when he/she doesn’t do their work.

However, if you have a child who is refusing to do homework or is failing, and you’ve done the previous steps to try to find the problem and have discovered there is no underlying problem, then rules are warranted. Establish appropriate expectations, and more importantly, develop rewards for following them and consequences for not. Then you must follow through on your plan. For example, create small measurable goals. If your teen puts in a lot of effort for 30 minutes, then he gets a 10-minute break. Or consequently, confiscate his electronics each day until he completes his homework. Phones, tablets and other electronics are a privilege, and he cannot earn them if he chooses to not do his work.

Final Thoughts…

Experts say that the best thing parents can do when faced with school problem is stay calm and open-minded. Nagging and lecturing – although tempting parenting techniques – are never effective and usually harm your relationship. Bribing your teen to get work done can sometimes work in the short run, but quickly loses its appeal to your child and can actually instill a “what’s in it for me” attitude. Additionally, threatening a consequence that you will never follow-through on will only reinforce the negative behavior. Instead, follow the tips above to discover the problem and creatively solve it with your teen. Not only will it truly address the problem, it will also teach your teen how to address future challenges.


18 thoughts on “What to Do When Teens Refuse to Do Homework or Fail a Class

  1. Sands says:

    My son is 15 years old. We have enrolled him in the on-campus ROTC program as well as contacted the counselors and all teachers. He is even going to tutoring three times a week after school. He still seems to have no interest in studying or doing his homework. I have addressed all the issues that I think you may have. I have questioned him grounded him and have taken away All Electronics indefinitely. What do you do if this problem has been an ongoing problem since the beginning of school? He has even threatened to quit school. My problem is that I’m the only one that seems to care about his grades. His blatant disregard for his grades is causing me stress and not him. I feel for all parents going through this situation because we can care all day long but until he cares nothing will change

    • I’m so sorry that you are going through this! Nothing is more difficult than wanting the best for your child, but watching them throw it away. I know you feel helpless, stressed and frustrated. You are not alone – many parents go through this difficulty! Unfortunately, there is no easy solution or perfect answer – every situation and every person is different. However, we highly recommend that you read our previous blog, https://middleearthnj.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/motivating-a-teen-to-change-destructive-behaviors/ because it addresses many of these issues you are talking about. We also always encourage families in these situations to seek out family counseling. Sometimes an outside observer can offer ideas that we never think of ourselves! We wish you the very best of luck!

    • Candice says:

      I am going through the same exact thing. My son is almost 13. The feeling of hopelessness is setting in so fast for me. Like your situation, he doesn’t seem to care whatsoever about failing. I almost wish there was a root cause i can identify with other than “I hate school work”, like a bullying problem, or depression, etc.

      We have done all of the above. no results. Its so heart-breaking. The last and only thing he LOVES to do and looks forward to is hockey and we finally took that away last night.

      He isn’t a disrespectful kid, he doesn’t act out, he loves to hang out with the family and enjoys having conversations on politics, history and current events. Just hates school work.

      Since you posted this, have you tried something different that has given you results? Any suggestion would be so welcomed.

  2. Abraham says:

    My step son 13 and a freshman in high school. He just will not do him homework at all… He doesnt miss school but he is failing all classes. Terrible test scores and is down right disrespectful to his teachers peers and to his little brothers too. Tried everything… He doesnt seem to want to anything to help. Any advise?

    • Lynn says:

      Our son was adopted, lost his adoptive parents and we are the fourth set of parents he has known. he is partially sighted, has ADHD, and severe Reactive Attachment Disorder. Follow the above… It does work… We moved all his electronic devices into different rooms: some rooms give him privacy, some rooms makE sure he has time with us so we keep up with who we are dealing with and we are building a good study pattern for his main exams and we are all getting to know each other much better. The important thing was to take the additive habit of electronic gadgets away. He now does more activities with us and opening up more. We worked together on a ladder chart that you climb as he accomplishes main milestones. If he is unsuccessful we have built in backup options or ways to get there. It has all the things he needs to do to get what he wants and the consequences if he misses a step or two he has backup steps. we got the school involved too and the college we hope he goes to for his choice in his career.

  3. Karla says:

    OMG I am living all of these nightmare with my 15 and 12 year old. Just got an email today that my 12 year old had 30 minutes to do an assignment and turned it in blank. WTH

  4. Cara says:

    I have the same problem with one of my son’s he just doesn’t care. The last 2 years of middle school he flunked a couple of classes during one semester then turned around a little bit and passed the next semester by a narrow margin. Went to summer school for the flunked classes and since the summer school is all online he completed both classes in a week and a half. This year he is a freshman in high school and he is failing all his classes, except 2 English and ROTC. His dad and I are at our wits end.

  5. jackline says:

    I think we should pray for them and encourage ,lets talk to them what they would like to become ,give them time to think and show love to them.

  6. Sara says:

    I have the same exact situation as Cat and Pete. My daughter is 14 years old. She has ALWAYS has a problem with homework. And its not just getting it done, its turning it in too. She just doesn’t seem to care. I know its not because she is having issues with the work itself because some of her missing work is for a Health class. This is easy stuff! She loves to read and is very good at it. She scores at a college level. She has to complete a reading log for her English class and she failed it last month because she didn’t complete any of it. And this is something that she IS actually completing. In my eyes, its pure laziness. I have taken away everything you can imagine. Phone, video games, TV privileges and nothing seems to “get to her”. The other day she sat at the kitchen table and literally refused to do any homework. She just sat there and scribbled on a notepad. I don’t know what to do. Im at a loss. Im exhausted from getting emails from all her teachers saying how bad she is doing. I tired of talking with her about it and getting yelled at for it. Any suggestions would be MUCH appreciated.

    • Geena says:

      Maybe homeschooling her. Or an online school.

    • May says:

      I feel the same. Sometimes I just feel like I’m the bad parent. My son is the same. I have so many talks to him and explain to the best of my ability how important it is and I am here to help him. But all he does is continue with what his doing or roll his eyes. Feeling frustrated.

    • Fabs says:

      Look like you are just describing my 11 year old daughter, and she is not just refusing to do her homework, but she also refuses to clean her room or help with anything in the house!! she is also very good reader and i´m always pointing on that as a very positive thing!, the teachers wont stop email me at least once at week by 5 teachers its to much to handle for me!! I´m about to be on strikes as a mom.. it´s being more than a year when you write here, did you find the solution?? did your daughter got any better?

      • Sara says:

        Hey Fabs! No unfortunately I have still not found a solution. She is now 15 and a Freshman in high school. She has been failing both Math and Science since the beginning of the school year. She NEVER brings homework home to work on. She never even brings a backpack to school! I am seriously at a loss with her. I just keep telling her now that she is in High School and her grades are more important than ever. If she fails a class, she has to make it up either in the summer or next school year but that doesn’t really seem to faze her. She simply just doesn’t care. She just keeps telling me that its her life and I shouldn’t care. She never does anything around the house and when we do ask her to do something simple, she gets so angry right away. I hate to say it, but she’s just selfish. She doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is only nice to us when she wants something. People just keep telling me this is typical teenage behavior but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with.

  7. Pete says:

    The comment made by Cat could have been written by me. Our son is exactly this and the same age. The article is good. However, we are not looking at a ‘change’ in behaviour, my son has NEVER done any homework. He just flatly refuses. He gets more and more referrals and then detentions. He just doesn’t seem to care! People say, ‘start with communication’ but he just won’t talk about it. All he says is, ‘I don’t care.’ We have tried homework club where he attends for one hour each week. This worked for a while but then he forgets and then is behind and gets another detention. He ended last year with 180 negative referral points. We were shocked when his 3yrs elder sister received just one. Little did we know what was coming!
    We have met with his teachers on my occasions. They have been very supportive, but still no result.
    They don’t have a school councillor as such. We have absolutely no idea how to connect with this child.
    Any help, from anyone, would be very, very most welcome.

  8. Cat says:

    We have a 14 year old 8th grader and nothing seems to work. He starts off each year with a “this year will be different” and then it goes downhill from there with him barely passing. We have tried reward. Didn’t work. This year we have slowly removed electronics until now he’s facing a summer with no electronics of any sort. It doesn’t seem to be working. His teachers complain that he’s not turning in work and spending most of his days staring at the walls. He just says he hates the teachers and the school work but loves seeing his friends at school. At this point in the year he has a B, a C, a D and 3 F’s. Once again, if his grades don’t change he will pass with about a quarter of a grade clearance. My husband contends that just getting harder on him will work. I’m not so sure. I think he’s at the age where he knows what to do, he’s just refusing to do it. He is a good kid otherwise. He’s been offered rewards for doing work but that isn’t working. He enters High School next year and we are not sure what to do. If we spend a lot of money to hire a tutor, which we don’t have the money to do, then there is no way to be sure he’ll even do the work with a tutor and it could be money down the drain. Do we just let him fail while keeping any privileges here at a minimum? At some point he will figure out that the person he is harming is himself, right? I read your article. We have no school counselor to consult. His teachers give homework but short of walking into each classroom with him each day I have no way of making sure he brings it home. I also can’t sit with him in class to make sure he pays any attention or does his work. It’s like he doesn’t believe us when we, or anyone else, tell him that this is harming his future life. Please help if you can.

    • Zuby says:

      Hi Cat,
      This could have been written by me! Has the situation improved one year on? I am at wits end. Like you I’ve tried everything. Please help.

  9. Joanne T says:

    I think this is often a good time to seek advice of a school guidance counselor. fortunately, if you don’t have that option, there are a number of excellent reading resources from well qualified professionals. By far the best I have found is Parents in Highschooland by Karyn Rashoff.
    The advice and ideas offered in this book really opened my eyes to a lot of ways that I could get involved to encourage and support my kids though high school. A must-read for parents of high school teens in my eyes.

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