How To Motivate a High School Student

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.

ding 11 comments on “How To Motivate a High School Student

  1. This is such a difficult situation and you are right there are so many families that deal with this situation. Sometimes I think we also overlook the fact that maybe school is harder for the student than we think it is. Often times good kids get overlooked when it comes to learning challenges. Just because he can participate in class discussion doesn’t automatically mean that he can do the independent work asked of him. Digging a little deeper into what is really happening with the school work is the first place I would start.

    • Rayna – Digging deeper, indeed, would be a good place to start. There are any number of reasons for unmotivated students. Self esteem issues, family problems, school methods, etc. Figuring it out is essential. Thanks so much for your comments!

  2. This sounds very serious – a but scary since he is now at the age of needing to decide college or trade school.
    Whatever you do, don’t build barriers, and lose him. Use lots of self-fulfilling prophecy words with him. No, I’m not telling you to fib, but all children have talents to offer.
    Does he play an instrument? Perhaps together you can find one that he’s interested in, and find a college or junior college that will assist him with strengthening his talents. Does he like the arts (visual arts)? Can he draw?
    You’ll need to go on lots of field trips (I don’t mean to scare him, but let him know how some have chosen the wrong roads). Keep your eyes open and watch him carefully. Do not let the fast life take him from you.
    Have a meeting with his assigned school counselor, administrators and teachers. Ask what you can do at home to help him get through the school year, and let your child realize that you will meet him half way as you work through his homework.
    Let school officials realize that you are concerned and want what is best for your child.
    Hug him a lot and tell him how much you love and believe in him!!

  3. This article could not have come at a more appropriate time. We are experiencing this right now with my tenth grade son. I also have had him evaluated by a medical doctor as well as a psychiatrist. He definitely suffers from depression so, for him, seeing the future, is impossible. He is in therapy right now to help him to help himself. I just got in a battle last night over three Fs on his report card. I have taken away all of his electronics as well as told him, now that he is 16, I will help him find a job. Your advice is spot on although we are still butting heads. Its a works in progress!

    • Wendi – You as SO right – it’s a work in progress. It’s really good that you’ve identified a big problem he’s having – depression. Next thing is to figure out why he’s depressed. I wonder if some tutoring would help him catch up at school. If he did better there, his self-esteem would rise. Sounds like a battle ground with him. Try to make an alliance with him – you can’t “make” him do anything, only work with him. Since he can’t visualize the future, taking him to a college – of any kind – might be really helpful. It’s such a concrete experience. I wish you the best!

      • Yes, he goes to tutoring. He doesn his homework there. And then refuses to turn it in. Its rough! Hes seen colleges as weve toured alot with his older sister. He cannot envision the future so anything beyond today does not phase him. Thank you for this topic!

        • Wendi – He sounds like a kid that actually has to experience things himself to get something out of it. It’s a hard way to learn. Lots of defiance. Sounds like you’ve done everything I can think of to do. This is a tough one.

  4. I just experienced that my son when he is in class its either he is day dreaming or playing, not paying attention in class. One thing that we observed at home when doing his home work is that he is easily distracted. We took all the gadgets that he has, we had a teacher conferencing, we have talked to him as parents and showered him all the disadvantages of not going to school. When he has a home work he takes about 4 hours on one thing. One has to be constantly behind him. I feel at 8th grade he is to be by himself doing his school work than us babysitting him. I really need help so bad.

  5. Toby – It sounds like you’ve been trying a number of behavioral modifications to help your son, without much success, unfortunately. I would suggest that you get him a medical workup to see if he is suffering from ADHD which would very much impact his difficulty concentrating. You might call your pediatrician and ask for a referral for a professional to do some testing with your son. If he does have this, they can offer help to him.

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