How to motivate underachievers

It seems there is no magical way to inspire kids to work harder in school. But there are some things parents can do to help.



Perusing my child’s high school report card recently, I couldn’t help but feel a bit discouraged and, well, downright bewildered. His grades ranged from very high to very low. After the usual hand wringing, soul searching (where did I go wrong?) and meetings with teachers, I decided to read up on what motivates students as well as talk to some local researchers who are studying this issue.

What I found is that no one has a magic potion labelled “motivation” that we can give to our kids in the hope that they will do better in school. There are no quick fixes. But one place to start is by asking the child, perhaps over several conversations, what is going on at school. Social and emotional issues like bullying or anxiety over performance can seriously hinder a child’s concentration. So listen carefully to what they have to say and seek out appropriate help (school staff, a counselor or a family doctor) if necessary.

And don’t overlook boredom as a cause of underachievement. When I asked my son about his rather dismal grade in French, he said outright that he was bored. “We’re always doing stuff that I know how to do,” he complained. I mentioned this to the teacher and she agreed, noting that his classmates aren’t particularly strong students. So she has tried to find more challenging work he can do, which seems to be helping him engage.

Like many teens, my son often questions the relevance of what he is supposed to learn. And sometimes it’s hard for me to find a good answer (when did I last need to solve a quadratic equation to get a job?). However, it’s important to try, says Dr. Steven Shaw, assistant professor of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University, who worked as a school psychologist for almost 20 years.

“We tend to label kids ‘smart alecks’ when they say something like this, but we need to show them why this material is important and how it’s going to help them.” In the case of math, a parent might mention that this subject teaches us life skills like solving problems (how much gas do I need to get from my house to my friend’s home), being careful with numbers (a mistake in adding up a restaurant bill can mean you pay more than you should!), etc.

Improve organizational skills

Dr. Shaw says that sometimes what seems like a lack of motivation is actually a problem of “initiation” or getting started on homework. Some kids feel overwhelmed when they stare at an assignment and aren’t sure where to begin. So parents might want to sit with them for the first five or 10 minutes and “prime the pump,” as Shaw calls it, by asking questions and helping the child get started. Hopefully the momentum will kick in and help the child get through the assignment (although a parent may still have to check in from time to time).

Shaw also suggests parents look closely at their children’s study and organizational skills. In high school, young people are expected to juggle several different classes and to make long-term plans to complete projects and reports. Many kids don’t have the necessary skills to handle the workload. Worse yet, a child who “studies” for an hour (by basically looking at the same pages over and over) and then does poorly on a test may come to the logical conclusion that studying doesn’t bring any benefit. In fact, his brand of studying hasn’t been effective. So teaching children good study and organizational skills can have tremendous payoffs (schools sometimes provide study skills clinics as do some local tutoring centres.)

Since I’m not convinced my child has the organizational skills needed to support his learning, I’m going to work with the school to figure out how we might be able to tackle that problem. And I’ve been thinking a whole lot more about how to answer when he asks the dreaded question, “so why should I be studying this? I’ll never use this when I grow up.” Hopefully, by keeping a conversation going not only about the relevance of school but also about how to manage the workload, I can help tap into that elusive drive that keeps my son going when things like math exams, English papers and history quizzes loom.

Books and DVDs that address motivation

Drive, by Daniel Pink. A well-researched, balanced and clear look into human motivation. Although Pink doesn’t spend much time talking about school success, the pages where he does are very helpful.

The Motivation Breakthrough: Six Secrets to Turning on the Tuned-Out Child, by Richard Lavoie. The author, who has worked extensively with students of all abilities, explores some myths of motivation and offers concrete ways for parents to help their kids stay motivated.

Unleashing Your Child’s Potential, by Carolyn Melmed. Created by a Montrealer educator with 35 years of teaching experience, this DVD gives parents clear, useful strategies for communicating with their children, developing organization and study skills and showing students how to avoid distractions and procrastination. For information and ordering, visit www.improvingstudyskills.com.

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