Understanding Your Unmotivated Student

By Huntington Learning Center

You have a smart child who seemingly does not care about school. His or her grades are suffering, but he or she seems indifferent about making a change—despite the fact that your child knows that school is important. Not only does he or she not put forth an effort, your child consistently shuns responsibility, procrastinates and seems incapable of working independently.

If any of this sounds like your student, you may be at a loss as to what to do. How can you help, and more importantly, how can you correct this behavior moving forward?

According to Bright Minds, Poor Grades, by Dr. Michael Whitley—a clinical psychologist specializing in motivational difficulties of children, adolescents and adults—underachieving students are unlikely to change on their own. The first step for parents to help their children overcome underachievement is to identify the personality characteristics that they lack—self-discipline, independence and a sense of responsibility, for example—as well as their patterns of underachieving behavior. How can you help your child become a motivated, independent student—whether he or she is a chronic procrastinator and or a social butterfly who considers school merely an opportunity to be with friends? Consider these tips, as derived from Dr. Whitley’s 10-step program to conquer underachievement:

  1. Establish trust. Let your child know that starting immediately, you expect the truth when it comes to school and grades. In return, you must avoid nagging and long lectures. Let your child know that your motivation is to help him or her become independent at school and capable of overcoming any issues that arise.
  2. Set goals. Have your child define specific goals for each of his or her classes—what grades does he or she want to receive? Accept your child’s goals, even if the bar is set low.
  3. Have your child lay out his or her game plan. Talk with your child honestly about how he or she plans to earn the “goal” grades. Get a clear picture of the study schedule he or she plans to adhere to, the steps your child thinks he or she must take, and more. Persevere even if your child seems apathetic about the discussion.
  4. Note any problems. What is standing in the way of your child achieving his or her goals? Talk about your child’s perspective on and attitude about those roadblocks. Ask for specific examples, but do not judge—simply gather the information.
  5. Make the connection between problems identified and goals set. Help your child see the patterns that result from certain behaviors and the relationship between problems and consequences.
  6. Develop a plan to solve the problems identified. Put your child in the driver’s seat. What ideas does he or she have to fix the problems that have led him or her in the past to experience school problems? What issues might arise to steer him or her off course? Have your child set the plan of action, including detailed steps.
  7. Review the plan thus far, including decisions, successes and failures. Ask your child to reiterate the steps of the plan, the setbacks that arise when he or she does not follow through or do his or her part, and the resulting consequences. Reiterating the plan helps your child recognize how his or her own decision making leads to success or failure.
  8. Talk about it. Have your child talk through his or her feelings about the plan forward. Remind him or her to feel proud each time he or she follows through on the plan developed. It is also okay for your child to feel conflicted or even annoyed about giving up the thing he or she wants (an activity or hanging out with a friend, for example) to meet the goals of his or her plan.
  9. Ask for a final recap. Have your child restate his or her commitment to doing what he or she has agreed to do.
  10. Take the time for follow-up. Did your child do what he or she is supposed to do to avoid the problems that have ailed him or her in the past? If not, what happened? Have your child walk you through the situation step by step. If the goal is to start homework before dinner, check-in each day. What happened in between coming home from school and dinner? By following up, your child will begin to notice how his or her decisions affect his or her goal achievement. Slowly but surely, your child will learn to recognize his or her tendencies and take responsibility for them.

If you suspect that your child may lack some of the skills necessary to succeed in school, it is important to address the issue right away. Your child may need targeted help to address problem areas so that he or she is capable of performing at grade level. If you need help, call Huntington to discuss our academic evaluation and one-to-one programs for students of all ages.