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zensky's avatar

How to deal with a teen who is unmotivated to study?

Asked by zensky (13262 points ) December 17th, 2012

Final year. Doing poorly scholasticly and unmotivated to change this. Otherwise active – does well in sports and has many friends. Is polite and loved by all, including teachers.

Help.

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44 Answers

Shippy's avatar

A reward system could work well. Something concrete, something he/she enjoys a lot. Also withdrawals of certain privileges. Both positive and negative reinforces work. Don’t feel bad, my son constantly moans at me that I didn’t do this to him.

wundayatta's avatar

Sometimes I think you have to reign yourself in and be patient and trust life will teach your children lessons you can’t. He may not get into the college he wants. He may not go to college at all. But he will find his way and eventually, when he decides education is important, he will be motivated by himself. This is how we want kids to be motivated. Pressuring them from outside becomes counterproductive at some point.

burntbonez's avatar

I don’t have an answer. I don’t have kids. But I did want to point out that your first two answers are pretty much the opposite of each other. Interesting.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@zensky Was he doing well before?

zensky's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe Hasn’t been doing well in years – but it’s crunch time. He’s never been very motivated academically – but he always somehow got by. Now he has finals and exams and matriculations et al. So it’s even more crucial.

What kills me is that he is courteous, friendly, curious, used to love to read (before the iphone and internet) loves sports especially b-ball…. but hates history/bible studies etc.

@wunday – my heart agrees with you – I was actually very much the same as him (I’ll only admit this to him in time, of course) but my head says carpe diem.

Wine's avatar

I remember when I started slacking in high school; I completely regret it now. I think I would have been more motivated if my mom incorporated positive reinforcements and used a different approach with negative ones. Most of the time she would literally just yell and nag, maybe try to sit the teen down and explain what he/she can have by pulling through with the home stretch.

Wine's avatar

I don’t agree with @wundayatta , teens don’t often understand how important their current actions are. Encouragement of any sort can keep doors to opportunities open for them, opportunities that they won’t always have.

ucme's avatar

He sounds like a bright kid with more than one string to his bow, this being the case, a few salutary words in his shell like should have the desired effect.

zensky's avatar

@Wine I never nag. I don’t believe in negative reinforcement either.A reward system won’t work in his case as he is kind of unique: he never asks for anything. I have to force birthday and holiday gifts on him. He never asks for money and I have to literally stuff his pockets with it when he goes out to the occasional party or on a date. He is very very minimalistic. He does like clothes and his mother and I both make sure he has plenty.

I’ll add, for those who don’t know, that I am divorced many many years and he spends half of the week with each of us.

So a reward system is out of the question.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@zensky Let me guess, he has a group of friends, teammates etc that get similar grades? I saw this in school. My class pushed each other to do as well as we could. The class below us, all of my teammates decided being smart wasn’t cool at some point. They all went from A’s for grades down to C’s. I don’t know what the answer is though.

zensky's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe He’s on a team and plays really well. They are close-knit and have played for many years together, however, I do not know that this is the case.

gailcalled's avatar

@zensky: Sit him down when it feels comfortable and calm and ask him these questions. Bite your tongue and see whether you can get some idea of what he thinks he will be doing after graduation if not matriculating somewhere.

He may be really frightened about the immediate future and not know how to or what to do to cope.

Is there still mandatory service in the army?

JLeslie's avatar

Is there any chance to evaluate and change the courses he is signed up for next term, to make sure they are something he is very interested in? In retrospect I realize what little control Itook over my high school education helped me greatly, but it was sort of dumb luck I even felt a small amount of control or any ability to ask for guidance and help with my options. I wish I had asked more and gone to adults more for how I could tweak my time in high school.

Also, if he is motivated by money, I say pay him for better grades. Give him money for every A, maybe a token amount for a B, and nothing for any grades lower than that. I kind of had no clue how well I would do if I just applied myself. I learned that late. I had no idea how to study, this was true through college. I never had had to study much. I was good at math, and math was not studying, it was just doing the work over and over. I payed attention well in class and tested well by just taking great notes, and many times never read the textbook. I only read when something was very interesting and there were questions at the end of the chapter.

I’m not sure if I am communicating my experience well, but my overall point is pursue an interesting curriculum if possible, and help him know he can do amazingly well if he actually does some work. He may not realize studying will make a big difference nor know how to do it. If you are willing to hire a tutor, that is kind of a forced time of additional study, it can be very effective. Forced is not the right word,because many students don’t mind having someone to study with so to speak. Alone study is what they don’t like. I am like this when I work. I like to work in teams and groups. Maybe just encouraging him to invite classmates over to study.

Edit: one last thing, if you think he likely will go on to college, or hope he will, take him to colleges, get him to embrace it and own it as a goal so he works towards it. I was very nervous about going away to school, it was so foreign to me to go onto a college campus, I was intmidated.

zensky's avatar

It’s his last year.

Wine's avatar

My colleagues and I often talk about how the “C” students are usually the ones that pull through in life because they know how to deal with hard work, compared to the “A” students who succeeded in classrooms where all you needed to do was complete hw assignments to pass. I think your son will learn the importance of a good education eventually, sounds like a nice boy.

I’m currently in my second year of college. At home I had everything supplied to me, similar to your son’s story. Fortunately I was able to pull through, but there’s always the thought of “What if I had tried harder.” You may have to create some needs and wants for him for his own good.

JLeslie's avatar

@zensky Yes, I know, but you seem to be saying the last year counts. He starts his new semester in January right? Or, is the school schedule different there? Isn’t he applying to colleges already? Or, does that happen next year because of military service?

zensky's avatar

I’ll PM you @JLeslie

bolwerk's avatar

I somewhat concur with @Adirondackwannabe. Maybe it’s not much of a problem? Get him through his last year, make sure he gets his diploma, and then…well, his actual education can begin, if he wants. He can work, evaluate what life skills he needs, figure out a trade, etc..

‘Cause, seriously, doing a shitty job in high school isn’t the end of the world. High schools present themselves as these totally important, defining, best-time-of-your-life experiences. In fact, they barely matter at all. I’ve never heard of an employer who cares. The only institutions that care are colleges he would apply to. And if he doesn’t want to study and can’t glide through without studying, he shouldn’t go to college.

For now, that is. Maybe he will be ready in a few years to try college. There is a fairly low-stress way around the problem of bad high school grades: when he is ready for college, spend the first year or two in community college. It’s cheap, remediation is taken care of, and you can be ready for a junior year as well if not better than people who go straight through 4-year schools. And all that famous stress about applying? It largely disappears. Transferring after a good performance in community college to a junior year in a 4-year school is easier because, by that time, many of the people who got in freshman year have already dropped out, and fewer people are competing.

(My GPA in high school was under 2.0. I didn’t give a shit. I still ended up worming my way into excellent schools, and have a master degree now. I’ll probably start working toward my Ph.D. next year.)

zensky's avatar

Thank you all for your advice and support.

Shippy's avatar

@zensky If I am repeating, as I haven’t read all the answers, I apologize. But he loves sports, so remove sports until school work is done, that kind of thing.

zensky's avatar

@Shippy I don’t believe in negative reinforcement. I don’t believe in threats or punishment. He plays every day and I like that he is in great shape, a good bunch of friends and a healthy lifestyle and setting. He came in first place in the national fitness championships. First place. He just doesn’t do homework or pay attention in class.

Shippy's avatar

@zensky It’s up to you of course. As I say, my son now 30 berates how liberal I was. He is only now going to sit his matric. Having said that though, he has done, Hotel Management, Skipper Course and International Chef Course. Which enabled him to work in France in great places. But he still wants that “ticket”.

wundayatta's avatar

@zensky I applaud your desire to encourage him to be intrinsically motivated, and to avoid using extrinsic motivators of a positive of negative type. Education theory and research tells us this is the best way to go.

I think you should be (and probably are) proud of his achievement in national fitness championships (I have no idea what that involves—is it like gymnastics?). His way may not be academic, and if he is taking after his father, then you must surely feel you understand him.

I would encourage you to come clean to your son. Tell him you were like him. You didn’t do well in school. And this was the consequence in your life. And this is what you did later in order deal with it.

Do not see this as a cautionary tale, though. See it as showing him another way of doing things. I think you probably want him to feel good about himself and his potential. I don’t think there’s any need to make a kid feel bad for not doing something. You are much more likely to get them to do something by focusing on what they do well.

So let me ask you. What is your story? Or rather, since you don’t like to share your story in public, to think about your story. What did you do after high school? Did you go to college? What was college like for you? How many years did it take to get through it, if you finished? Then what did you do? What was your career like? Did you ever go back to school or get any further education? Why? How was that?

You want to show him what your life was like and what you learned, simply as an alternative. It is not necessarily a lesson. Show him you trust him to make his own decisions. Really, you have no choice now. He knows what he likes. He needs to figure out how to move forward in that area. Perhaps he will become a fitness instructor, in time. Perhaps he will teach. Perhaps he will open his own school. Perhaps he will compete.

Whatever he wants, he needs a plan. Be open to any plan and be open to helping him plan.

Of course, you may have some disagreements with your ex-wife. That makes things difficult. But you have to give him the best you have, and I think you owe him the truth about what you think and who you are. Do not let her come between you and your son. Don’t let anything come between you. Your relationship is the most important thing—more important than pretending to be someone you may not be, because you think that will encourage him to be more academic.

He is who he is already. Relate to him on that level. Not on the level of who you want him to be. I believe you will be of more use to him by being honest than by trying to maintain some notion of what it means to be a parent.

I could point to myself as an example of that, but I’m sure there are millions of others who do the same thing, and I bet you will feel more comfortable that way, anyway.

It’s ok. You are a good father. He will do well. Just help him find his way.

El_Cadejo's avatar

Ahhhh senioritis…

YARNLADY's avatar

We had the same issue with all of our teens. The only thing that seemed to work with us was to actually sit down with them and do our work while they did theirs.

I was lucky to find an outreach-type public school that let the students go in for two hours a week to take their tests and receive their new assignments, then do all their work at home.

It took my oldest grandson six years of high school to graduate.

hearkat's avatar

My son’s allowance was based on his grades from one marking-period to the next starting in Junior High.

I realize this probably won’t be applicable in your specific situation, but I thought I’d mention what I did. As a single mom, I couldn’t afford much for him, so he was motivated by money.

Seek's avatar

Sounds like a classic case of Senioritis.

I had a bad one, myself. It was mostly due to my parents informing me that they would no longer support my decision to continue higher education.

What snapped me out of it was simply a trusted and admired teacher pulling me aside and saying “I notice you’re a little distant this semester. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Actually being aware that someone noticed or gave a damn… it really helped.

Of course your son knows you love and are concerned for him, but a simple “I notice and acknowledge you” can go a long way.

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Bellatrix's avatar

This is also probably going to be a tl dr @gailcalled! Sorry in advance.

@zensky, firstly I can understand how you must be feeling. I went through this with my son in the last years of school. He is a super bright boy but he just lost all motivation for school. I tried reward systems, I tried offering trips to New Zealand or wherever he fancied for his finishing school celebrations. I tried explaining the level of achievement he needed to get into the university degree he said he wanted to do. I found info about scholarships that would be available. I worked with him on some assignments and took him to city libraries to do research on projects he was interested in. I called in the help of his school teachers including the Deputy Head. We had meetings as a group. The DH offered to be his mentor and to meet him each week – he didn’t turn up. I could go on but you get the picture.

He had lost interest in school and no amount of logical, rewarding discussion or even nagging helped. I know this isn’t what you want to hear but I think sometimes, they just have to learn by experience. Do what you can to keep him going but beyond that, it’s your child’s responsibility to do well at school and they are not stupid. They know this. They therefore have to also wear any consequences.

My son is doing fine. You know we had some major issues in the year after school but he has a job, is sharing a house with friends and we have conversations here and there about ‘where to from here’. I am hopeful he will eventually get bored with the work he is doing and want to challenge his mind.

Without making this too long (editing now – and I obviously failed in this quest). I have also seen young people in my work who have felt compelled to go to university. Not exactly the same but they aren’t much older than your young person. Their parents may not have forced them but the kids have felt compelled and expected to go to uni. They struggle @zensky. My feeling is, to a point and without being disengaged ourselves, we are better letting them decide when they are ready to get motivated about study. Any coercion can backfire badly. Just be there as I know you are.

I hope your child proves me wrong and gets that spark back and gets into it. Keep in mind – plenty of people go back to study later on or do very well in life without being academically successful. I know my son is very, very bright, the school structure did not work for him. He could write an assignment the night before it was due and get an A. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to watch him say ‘I can’t be bothered’. In time I feel very sure he will find his path and that’s my focus. Helping him to get that point – but very gently and at his own pace.

If you want to talk – you know I am happy to have a chat.

wundayatta's avatar

These kids are not stupid. They know that high school exercises are stupid. There is no point to them, except practice. Most of our kids don’t really want to practice any more. They want to do real things, But there is no place for them in the adult world. We don’t trust them to do anything meaningful.

Is it any wonder they get bored at school and think life is pointless? Any wonder they feel like they have no place? Any wonder so many of them turn to drugs and alcohol? I don’t think so.

I think the way we treat teens, in general, is a scandal. I think if they had real work to do, and felt a part of society… a valued part of society, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem. But they make mistakes and are impulsive, and so few adults are willing to give them a chance. Most adults don’t trust teens. And teens don’t want to be where they aren’t trusted. They are no different from any of the rest of us.

I think we need to seriously think about how to let teens be useful members of society. They need meaningful work, not high school make work. They need to do real things. My daughter spent the weekend volunteering for a social service organization and an arts organization. She was tutoring the week before. While she is required to do volunteer work for the national honor society, I think these things mean so much more than just fulfilling a requirement.

Still, I would like to see her do more. I think she should volunteer in all different kinds of places, because it gives her a view of what work is out there and what people do. It also helps her develop skills. Real world skills. Shoot. Maybe she even had to use math skills. LOL.

But I would like to see far more than that. I would like to see work opportunities more easily available for all teens, and in things they want to do. It won’t work if they have to do things just because it is a requirement. I don’t know how to do that, but I’m sure other people would have great ideas.

Bellatrix's avatar

I agree @wundayatta. Unfortunately, school systems don’t work that way. I am a constructivist. I would love to have seen my son having the opportunity to do some real, practical work that would have actually been valuable to the community. He has a brilliant mind for engineering. From when he was a little kid he would pull things apart and draw new designs using autocad. He was bored with school. I am sure he would have enjoyed being asked to solve a real problem and being able to work with his teachers, industry sources to design a response. I do realise this could be a nightmare to organise but I think programs that actually do make a difference need to inspire our teens and perhaps their teachers more than the mundane and often irrelevant work they are often asked to complete now. As you say, they aren’t stupid and they need to be able to see the value of the work they are being asked to do.

I don’t blame most of the teachers. They are working in a system that is designed to meet the needs of the masses. I think we have to pick up these kids are disengaging much earlier though and to find creative solutions early. We need to get young people involved in designing the projects they will work on. Give them some ownership.

Not that this helps you @zenzky. Although, if you can get your child involved in some workplace training that counts towards school that might help.

zensky's avatar

Thanks guys.

Seek's avatar

I agree with @wundayatta as well – you’re a legal adult (or nearly so), and yet, you’re trapped in an institutional building filling in work sheets, biding time until they kick your arse into a world that will continue not to trust you to do anything useful until you’re old enough that they expect you to have useful things under your belt already.

JLeslie's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I disagree a little. It depends on the school I hated high school also. I could not get out fast enough, and in fact I competed all necessary credits by mid year my senior year and started junior college that January. I had been taking AP Antaomy and Physiology and my teacher told me not to leave that class, that it was worth college credit. I didn’t care, because I thought the school was going to force me to still come in early, all day. But, in retrospect maybe I could have just come for that class (which happened to be late in the afternoon) and another one I might have enjoyed. Free education, college level. Every time I asked for something reasonable they actually had gone along with it, but my perception still was I could not fight city hall so to speak. Although, another negative was class was every day, so it meant driving to the school 5 days a week (the opposite direction from my house of the Jr. College I was going to, but there was a campus that direction also). But, from what I understand some high schools do block scheduling and don’t have the same class daily. I think if I had more understanding and chutzpah to talk with the school, I might have had a much more enjoyable education, learned more, and saved some money in the long run for my parents, and time in college.

Of course some schools are completely rigid and suck. But, I am going to assume Israeli schools are more likely not to suck.

zensky's avatar

When you assume you make an ass of u and me.

:-)

bucko's avatar

School isn’t for everyone. I never did any homework but still went onto college because it sounded better than getting a job or joining the military. College was an absolute waste of time, I took nothing but easy classes and continued to skip my homework. I was the kind of kid who should have gone to a vocational school but didn’t because I could get good grades if I wanted too.

It’s time to face the fact that if your kid isn’t doing his homework now, he isn’t ever going to do his homework.

JLeslie's avatar

@zensky So true. But, you might be surprised just how rigid it can be here. Or, maybe not. I am shocked. An example. A friend of mine started teaching 7th grade math this year. Before that she had a very successful career in IT in big corporations. In her rather large public school she teaches at, all 7th graders take the same math. Doesn’t matter if they are a little behind, or could do much more, they all get the same class. That is ridiculous to me. So, a bunch of them struggle like crazy and many fail.

Wine's avatar

@bucko Not true. I’ve seen kids that did the minimum in high school really succeed in universities and vice versa.

bucko's avatar

@wine you can’t make someone like school.

hearkat's avatar

@bucko – I’m with @Wine on this one. Adolescent behaviors can not reliably predict adult performance.

I hated homework and hated High School. At first, I did not do well in college, because I was not well emotionally, due to childhood abuse. I dropped out for a while, but later went back. Once I found a field of interest I did very well, and even went on to get my Master’s Degree – which I never would have believed I would do just a few years earlier.

A colleague of mine has twins. One excelled in High School and won science awards and scholarships. The other was more social and less interested in academics. They went to college, and they flip-flopped… the one they thought was headed to the top floundered and dropped out. The other blossomed, just graduated, and is applying to graduate schools.

My own son is much like me. He did just enough to get by through High School, but has no interest in college because he has no career goal. He works full time and is financially responsible at 21, but he still has an uncertain future and yearns for a sense of direction. We both know that once he finds a vocation that “clicks” with him, he will do whatever he needs to do to attain the goal, and so we continue to keep our eyes and ears open for ideas of fields of study that are well-suited to him.

Bellatrix's avatar

@bucko—I did very poorly at school myself. I now teach at a university and have a PhD. I see students on a daily basis who did not arrive at university via traditional pathways (i.e. straight from school). School performance is a very bad indicator of future academic potential. Mature aged students who return to study do so of their own volition and are therefore motivated to complete their work.

zensky's avatar

I appreciate everyone’s input, however, to be fair, some were privy to more information vis a vis my child than others. Still, it’s a highly subjective issue and personal experiences and stories are just that anyway. Thanks again – and if the subject itself interests you – feel free to keep up the conversation. I’ll keep you posted about my son – in a few years. We’ll see what happens. So long as today isn’t the end of the world. 21/12/2012

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