How To Motivate a High School Student

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Our high school-aged son is completely unmotivated to do his work. How can we motivate him?

MOLLY: This came from a mom based in Maryland. She added that they’ve tried many strategies but he has no desire to do better in school.

The parents have tried rewarding good study habits, offering help with organizational habits, and encouraging him to ask them or his teachers for help if he needs it. Nothing has had any effect on his apathetic view toward school. They feel “helpless and at their wits end.”

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): This sounds like a very difficult yet fairly common family situation. It sounds like this teenager has dug in and made a stand about his school work.

Since all of his parents’ efforts have failed so far, they might want to try a different approach. Have a family meeting and tell him they have no more solutions to offer. They should ask him to share his thoughts about what he wants to do with his life after high school. Strive to make an alliance with him and end the battles about schoolwork.

If he refuses to talk with his parents, therapy is another route you could consider.

MOLLY: Another thing they could do is bring him to visit a college campus and take a student-led tour. He might decide that he would like to go there and that would be worth attending to his schoolwork if that was the goal.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD: Yes, that’s a good idea.

MOLLY: It would show him what exists after high school for those who are motivated to get there.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD:  Really this is an excellent idea because it’s so concrete. Kids often have a hard time projecting into the future and showing him the pot of gold at the end of high school can be inspiring.

His parents could also make him get a job during high school and summer vacations. A minimum-wage job would help him understand what life beyond school can be like, especially for those who don’t graduate high school.

I don’t want to overlook the control issue going on between parents and son, and that’s why I suggested that they make an alliance with him rather than continue the battles.

The difficult part for the family will be to realize that an alliance involves some give and some take from each party. For instance, if the teen doesn’t want to do schoolwork that’s fine but he will have to get a job to fill that free time that should have been taken up by schoolwork and school activities. If this is the deal that is struck, the parents will have to agree to stop nagging him about schoolwork.

Sometimes we see kids who need to experience firsthand the disadvantages to working without a high school or college degree before deciding to apply themselves toward bettering their future. Having to work for spending money can be a good lesson here.

The parents are also within their rights to offer to pay for or help pay for a college education within a certain time frame. If the son cannot motivate himself appropriately to live up to this stipulation, then he would have to fund his education himself at a later date.

How to Motivate Kids to Do Their Schoolwork

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My 10 year-old puts more effort into sports than into school.  What can I do to help?

MOLLY: We received this question from a reader whose 10 year-old son puts in a lot of effort into sports or messing around but when it’s the mundane yet required tasks that sometimes come along with schoolwork, the effort drops out. What can she do?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): She might want to approach this on several different levels. One is, she will want to applaud him for the effort that he does put in for the things he wants to do, like sports, which are important, and even messing around is an important part of childhood and is fine, too. She will want to say to him that that life requires a balance between work and play.

I would look at it in a very behavioral way. We’ve talked about using reward charts to influence behavior in younger children, and although you have to adjust the rewards when appealing to a 10 year-old, you can create a similar idea.

What I would do is, I would say to him: “We (your parents) feel it is important to do well in school as well as have fun playing sports. We need to see that you can put more effort into your schoolwork, because you’re a smart kid and we know you can do better. We know this can be overwhelming, but we’ll help you get better at managing your schoolwork by scheduling a specific time each night to get it done. If the homework doesn’t get done, then we won’t able to do the after-school activity the next day and you’ll have to start doing homework as soon as you get home from school until it gets done. Basically, if you want to do these extra activities, you need to show us that your schoolwork won’t suffer. Do you think that’s fair?”

The idea is that she has to help him figure out how to have a balance between schoolwork and all the other things that he wants to do. This is a life skill!  In the end, this skill of how to manage the things he wants to do with the things he has to do will really pay off for him.

MOLLY: But… Are you suggesting she takes away privileges or activities?

MOM: Not immediately, especially for a 10-year old as he will be resentful at the surprise unfairness and that will distract him from the overall goal of helping him learn how to manage his time. Always make sure the child knows the expected behaviors and the consequences of not doing the behaviors before enacting any consequences. She might have to take some days of activities away if he does not believe she is serious and does not do his schoolwork, but he should be able to earn the activities back by showing he can perform the expected behaviors. I wouldn’t take away activities for longer than a week at a time as it is hard for a 10-year old to envision life much beyond seven days and he will feel discouraged.

The truth is that kids need a balance between schoolwork and sports and other activities, and in life sometimes you have to do the things you don’t want to do in order to do the things you do want to do.

MOLLY: If some kids are more interested in outside activities than they are into school, how do you convince them that they need to put more effort into school?

MOM: Really, I think the best way is to help kids learn how to manage their time between those two areas of school and extracurricular activities and show how the performance in one area will affect the other. I think that talking some about the future and what he might want to be when he grows up –and what it would take to become that, like a college education – could be helpful. Even if he can’t hear what you’re saying at the moment, he might very well remember what you say later.

In terms of motivating an improvement in schoolwork, kids will generally perform at the level that’s expected of them. If she expects her child to get above 80% on regular quizzes and tests in class, like weekly spelling tests or math tests, those could be the goals for the him. He will be then be goal-directed because he understands that if he doesn’t do the studying that he needs to do to get above 80%, then he’s going to miss out on sports or on something else that’s important to him.

MOLLY: What should she take away?

MOM: It could be an after-school activity or it could be a day of computer or TV time, or something else that he wants strongly enough to put in the work to keep it. She’ll have to let him know that she really means business because he will likely test her out at the beginning. She can remind him that he has the choice to ignore his schoolwork, but that choice will mean that he might miss the next football practice if he gets a low score on the math test or homework assignment. She’ll want to help him balance his life so that he can get his tasks done.

Now, in the long run this is important, too, because he’ll experience this ability to manage his life and his stressors and he’ll be more likely to create balance in his life later on when he’s older and you don’t have any control over what he does.

MOLLY: And you don’t want to take away everything at once?

MOM: No, you want him to feel that it’s all redeemable…

MOLLY: …or else the kid is going to feel like there’s no chance and just give up.

MOM: Hopefully what will happen is that he’ll begin to enjoy school more because he’ll feel more accomplished and better prepared for classes, even if he says he’s only working to keep his other activities. From my perspective, it’s a win-win for his present life and also for his future life. It should also be remembered that not everyone takes the more scholarly road – there are lots of different ways to make your way through life successfully.

Experience this? Comment below if you have tried this or other methods to help your child balance his/her efforts. Or, Contact US if you have a parenting issue you would like to see addressed.