Parents of disengaged children, here’s the solution you’ve been looking for

lights on® learning whole family transformation Sep 01, 2021

As a parent of a disengaged child, it can seem impossible to switch your child back on to learning. No matter what you try, nothing works. Perhaps if you could just make learning a bit more fun, they might show some interest. Or if they had a tutor for some extra support, maybe they would stop avoiding maths. There’s always a rewards system with gold stars as a last resort...

With every new method you try, you’re left (once again) feeling hopeless, exhausted, and disappointed. But there’s a simple reason why none of your attempts are successful: you’ve been looking at the wrong problem. And all it takes is one shift to get back on track.

Interventions like tutors or reward systems often focus on altering the external environment around the child. But the environment was never causing the disengagement in the first place. This means that at best, external interventions can only gloss over the underlying source of disengagement. Fixating on these factors can be tempting, but is ultimately a waste of your time. 

Take the example of Bryony, who at age 7 was anxious, refusing school, and avoiding writing. Her mother, Nicky, was using a variety of methods to try to solve Bryony’s avoidance of writing. In a critical shift, Nicky asked Bryony what was holding her back. Bryony said that she couldn’t write as well as other children her age, and this made her feel stupid. Instead of investing more time and money into improving Bryony’s writing, together they worked on building Bryony’s self belief, which was what was causing her writing block in the first place. They explored her natural born talents which she could excel at, and engaged in these to build her confidence around learning. They then created a strategy for Bryony to use for writing. Having built Bryony’s self confidence, the internal block was reduced, and Bryony’s teachers noted a rapid and astonishing improvement in her writing. 

Bryony’s story represents an essential shift that parents need to make in order to see the engagement they’ve been looking for. The shift: from the outside-in to the inside-out.

These are the two lenses through which learning can be viewed. Both perspectives ask: ‘What is causing the disengagement in my child?’. However, there are fundamental differences between the two, and ultimately an inside-out perspective is always the most effective for long term results.

Outside-in lens

If you are focusing on features of the external learning environment that could be causing your child’s disengagement, you are using an outside-in lens. These features are likely to include their school or their teachers, and you are probably trying lots of different methods to make learning more ‘fun’. Spoiler alert: it’s never been about making learning fun.

Changing these factors may bring improved engagement in the short-term, but as soon as the changes are stripped away, the child will return to their state of disengagement. In other words, an outside-in perspective does not build a resilient learner, because they become reliant on the external learning environment being optimal.


Inside-out lens

This perspective recognises that humans are innately wired to learn. Learning is as natural to us as breathing, so it shouldn’t feel like a chore. A switched on learner is able to learn regardless of their external environment because they understand that learning is not something you are subjected to, but something you seek out and explore; something that comes from within.

Therefore, if a child is not engaging in learning, there must be a break in the circuit that is preventing their lights being switched on. With Bryony, the break in the circuit was her lack of confidence and belief in herself. She believed she was rubbish at writing, so she did everything she could to avoid that feeling of worthlessness.


If a learner has disconnected from learning and their lights have gone out, this is a serious threat to their mental health. A child whose lights are off cannot learn. It is as simple as that. Your priority is to switch their lights back on, and you need to use an inside-out lens to do this. 

This involves honing in on the internal learning obstacles that are causing the disengagement in the first place. Some common blocks are:

  1. A lack of confidence. Perhaps the child does not excel in school, and has therefore internalised the fact that they are not good enough, so why should they even try? Like Bryony, they need to build confidence by identifying and building on their strengths and natural born talents.
  2. A lack of motivation. This prevents engagement in learning, no matter how ‘fun’ you make it. In this case, it is likely that the learner has not discovered the passion that will spark their interest in learning and provide the motivation to experiment and try new things. 
  3. A fear of failure. They are likely to be a high achiever in school, and able to ‘coast’ without really having to engage. This prevents them trying new things or stepping out of their comfort zone where they are vulnerable to failing. They need to work on their mindset.


Identifying the internal blocks your child faces is the most important step you can take towards switching your child back onto learning. Once you have done this, you can start using your time effectively instead of wasting it by focusing on the wrong problem.

If you want to gain more clarity on switching your child’s lights back on, our free learning audit is available to help. You can use it to identify: 

  • The current learner identities in your family
  • Whether you are tapping into the three keys for lights on learning, and which key you should prioritise to see results
  • Your current position on the lights on success path

If you have any further queries or would like some support on your Lights On® journey, please contact us at [email protected]


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