Homeschool Resistance? How to Keep Love of Learning Alive in the Upper Grades

Studies demonstrate widespread declines in enjoyment of school starting in 4th grade. What makes kids lose interest in school? And how can you bring that excitement back?

Emily Veno
May 15, 2024

A version of this post originally appeared in Secular Eclectic Academic (SEA) Homeschoolers Magazine in the April 2024 edition. Prisma is an official partner of SEA Homeschoolers.

Homeschooling your younger kids with joy probably came naturally. Each day brings new creative activities tailored to your child’s natural curiosity. Dreamy nature walks in the park. Cozy story time at home. Helping little hands assemble popsicle-stick crafts and LEGO towers. Bonding over each new learning adventure. 

Then comes a shift. Your former cheerful learning buddy becomes a surly adversary as five-paragraph essays and long division enter the equation. Suddenly, every curriculum is “boring,” every task is a battle, and you’re facing resistance to even your most tried-and-true routines. 

You’re wondering: What are you doing wrong? Is this normal? Is homeschool even (gulp) still a fit for your family? And what do you do now? 

Homeschooling families struggling with sudden “school resistance” should know their experiences align with trends seen across most learning environments. Several landmark studies demonstrate widespread declines in enjoyment of school starting in 4th grade. In 4th grade, less than half of students say they enjoy school, and by 8th grade, it drops to less than a quarter

The high school data is more shocking. High schoolers report mostly negative feelings about school such as boredom and stress. Many attribute mental health issues like depression and anxiety directly to their school environment. 

Although these trends have been observed for decades, we have reason to believe this lack of engagement is even worse post-pandemic. “School refusal” is a much buzzed-about problem in many districts. Some sources report up to 30% of students are chronically absent. 

Why Kids Stop Liking School

Let’s set aside for a moment how concerned we all should be about the future of a world where most kids don’t like learning. Why does engagement in school slip starting in 4th grade? Some theories: 

Puberty and social dynamics

Of course, as hormones rage, kids become moody and difficult to please in general. As preteens struggle to establish social roles and identities, building friendships in school also becomes more fraught. 

End of hands-on, play-based learning

4th grade is when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This change brings increased emphasis on texts, writing, and research in curriculum, which kids may find less engaging. 

From one class to many

The elementary to middle school transition typically means switching from one teacher and class who know each other well, to a balancing act of subjects, teachers, and schedules many kids struggle to adapt to.

More stress

In many schools, minutes of homework are determined by age, with several hours per night common by 8th grade. Standardized tests and impersonal grading processes don’t help, especially if learners lack social-emotional skills to cope. 

Why Kids Stop Liking Homeschool

Homeschooling can address some of the above challenges. Many families choose to homeschool to avoid unhealthy social environments, homework loads, and lack of hands-on learning. However, we have heard from many homeschool families that they often still experience a 4th grade engagement drop. This may be due to a few specific pitfalls:

Contentious parent-child dynamic

I don’t need to tell you that preteens and teens like disagreeing with their parents! When you’re both parent and teacher, kids may act out even more to establish independence. 

Different socialization needs

A first grader may do fine with weekly supervised playdates and homeschool meet-ups in the park. A seventh grader wants their own consistent friend group away from mom or dad. 

Challenging subject matter

It’s easy to personalize elementary subjects to your child’s interests. Once you’re scratching your head trying to remember the parts of a cell, you may need to rely on not-so exciting existing curriculum. (Sure, you could spend hours hunting down interest-driven materials for each middle school standard, but, especially if you’re homeschooling multiple siblings, forget it.)


Keeping the Homeschool Love Alive: Top 6 Strategies

How can you maintain and even deepen engagement, excitement, and motivation when homeschooling an older child? 

1: Amp up rigor, but don’t sacrifice hands-on learning. 

Explore project-based and interdisciplinary learning approaches. Project-based learning is often more rigorous than traditional curricula because it’s driven by research, and asks learners to authentically apply academics from writing to engineering to data analysis.

Interdisciplinary projects can blend your learner’s least favorite subject with their favorite, naturally increasing buy-in. (Think writing a sci-fi story incorporating research on ecosystems, like Prisma learners did in our Uncharted Territories theme). Open-ended projects give kids choice and ownership, making learning feel “real” and important.

Prisma’s programs are designed around interdisciplinary, project-based learning for all subjects. If you're interested in pulling this off at home through the unit study approach, check out our unit design template inspired by the Prisma curriculum.

2: Consider the big-picture purpose. 

You’ve probably noticed “because I said so” or “because it’s on our daily schedule” is less convincing as your homeschooler matures. Strive for them to understand the purpose of your learning goals (and if you don’t see the point, they won’t either, so figure that out first).

By 4th grade, kids begin thinking about future goals and have adults they admire. Connect activities to real-world careers. Plan interviews with acquaintances who have interesting jobs. Prisma learners attend expert guest speaker events with inspiring professionals from toy designers to anime voiceover artists to bakery owners.

Real-world projects can help, too. For example, reluctant writers with dreams of gaming-adjacent careers may enjoy writing a video game review article more than a regular essay. Prisma makes learning relevant to the real world by building toward real-world skills and connecting all themes to essential real-world topics. 

3: Find your learner an audience. 

No one wants to do their best if they know nobody will ever see their work. And-forgive me for speaking a harsh truth-sometimes an audience of ‘just mom’ is not much improvement.

I commonly hear from Prisma families that presenting work to an audience during Expo Days each cycle is the single-best motivator for their preteen. I also hear that it was the hardest opportunity to provide when homeschooling. But there are ways to pull it off. Can your learner present to your co-op or extended family? Post to an online homeschool group for feedback? Enter local, state, or national competitions?

The anticipation of sharing work gives learning healthy stakes. And a learner’s post-presentation pride is second to none!

4: Recruit mentors. 

You and your child might simply need space. Many parents find it beneficial not to be their older child’s sole teacher. Though private tutoring, elective courses, and online schools are an option, it doesn’t need to be that formal. Try having a friend who’s an expert in a topic your child loves give a casual lesson. Or, connect with an older teen who can give feedback or take shifts explaining math problems.

It benefits your child to learn from multiple teaching styles. It may also relieve the pressure on you to be anything and everything they need. Whether homeschool families choose to enroll in Prisma’s parent-coach program or full middle/high school program, their learner gets access to talented educators who mentor and support their goals. 

5: Prioritize friendships. 

Deep friendships are a developmental need for older children. If your child doesn’t have any, they may be less happy with homeschooling overall. Research has shown it takes about 60 hours to build a lasting friendship. To help your child establish these bonds, think beyond sporadic meetups and aim for consistency (more in our guide to homeschool friendships).

And although organized sports, arts programs, and camps are great for homeschoolers to make friends, older kids also need age-appropriate unstructured time with no firm plans other than ‘hanging out.’ Prisma learners are intentionally matched with a tight-knit cohort of peers they connect with each day in workshops, lounges, and learner-led clubs. 

6: Don’t forget the magic moments. 

Older homeschooled kids may start to compare their experiences to traditionally schooled peers. When they start to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side, emphasize the beauty of homeschooling. Take advantage of the flexibility of your lifestyle! Travel, take field trips, or see a weekday matinee. Set aside chunks of the day for self-directed learning in which your learner can work on whatever they’d like. Whatever makes them feel special!

Due to our flexible schedule, many Prisma learners still take advantage of the homeschool lifestyle through worldschooling, in-person co-ops, field trips, and meetups. 

Kids Need to Love Learning to Be Prepared for the Future

On an individual level, incorporating choice, real-world relevance, and peer connections can rescue kids on the verge of losing their love of learning. If you’re engaged and passionate enough to be reading this post, you’re likely working on doing just that. 

But on a macro scale, with massive amounts of learners disengaging from school, I wonder: should society accept an education system that erodes the curiosity innate to all children? What will the consequences be? How will the next generation tackle the massive challenges facing our world without the ability to relish solving tough problems? How will they find lasting happiness without the confidence to adapt and forge their own paths? 

It’s exactly these questions that inspired us at Prisma to imagine a better alternative for educating kids to prepare them for a rapidly changing future. 

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

Want to learn more about how Prisma can empower your child to thrive?

Learn More

More from our blog