Motivating Underachievers II: Get Your Unmotivated Child on Track before School Starts

by James Lehman, MSW
Motivating Underachievers II: Get Your Unmotivated Child on Track before School Starts

In Part II of  Motivating Underachievers, James explains what you can do to get your child on track before school starts—and how you can motivate them to do their school work during the year.

For a teen-ager, there are many ways to say “screw you” to your parents. And for underachieving kids, being motivated to do nothing is one of those ways. I believe that when kids are so-called lazy, that's really an attitudinal issue about “Why bother, my life's not going to get any better anyway.” And when kids develop that kind of attitude, many times there's a lot of stuff going on in their lives which overwhelms them. Resisting their parents’ expectations is one way that they can feel like they’re in control. For these children and teens, the path to power becomes a game of withholding and resisting, and they often sink under the waves at school. The sad part is that this game only works until they’re young adults—and then no one else will be willing to play it with them.

"I believe that when kids are so-called lazy, that's really an attitudinal issue about 'Why bother, my life's not going to get any better anyway.'"

What to Say to Kids Who Had a Bad Year Last Year

For the kids who had a hard time in school the previous year, parents should be talking to them about what they learned from that hard time. After all, we're supposed to learn from difficulty. While this talk should ideally happen at the end of the school year, you can still have this conversation now. (Be prepared for the fact that kids will often deny that it was that bad a year—that’s why it’s good to have the conversation while the year is still fresh in their mind, in the spring.)

Before school starts and when things are going well, sit down with your child, and say, “Look, there's something that I think would be helpful to talk about. What did you learn from what you went through last year? I'm not criticizing, but what did you learn?” And then the follow up question should be, “And what will you do differently this year?” Not what they'll say differently. “What will you do differently to stay on top of your grades,” or “What will you do differently to get along better with your classmates or with the teachers? Let’s pick one thing you can do right now from day one that will help you move in that direction.”

When kids stumble and fall, I think our goal is to always ask what they're going to do differently and what they’ve learned. When my son would fail a test, I would say, “What did you learn from this? And what are you going to do differently?” These questions talk about the future and get the child to think about what they will do to change the outcome. I looked at it this way: the test was over, and he failed it. That was the natural consequence. I didn't need to make speeches at him or blame him, because that’s not an effective way to get change. I was interested in what he was going to do so he would pass the next test.

The whole coaching and teaching role is about, “What did you learn from this, what are you going to do differently, how can I help you with those skills?” Sometimes what your child is going to do differently is do his homework at the kitchen table so somebody is there to make sure that he does it. Sometimes it's going to be studying with a friend. But you always want concrete answers to what your child's going to do differently, whenever they have a hard time and whenever they slip up.

If they don't come through with any ideas or say, “I don’t know,” you should make some suggestions and have them pick one. Certainly, you can try to reason with them. But there's nothing wrong with saying, “I want to see your homework every day till you pass the next test.” Or “I want your door open when you do the homework until you pass the next test.” It’s OK to lay that down on them so that the accountability becomes more personal. But first, you give them a chance. That way, the next time you have this talk with them, your child will know what's going on. He'll have the script, he'll know what he's supposed to say and do.

6 Things You Can Do to Get Your Kids back on Track before School Starts:

Start Waking up Early: A week before school starts, have all your kids use their alarms and wake up at the time they’ll be getting up during the school year. They should wash their face, brush their teeth and come out and have breakfast. Afterward, they can go back to sleep, start their day—whatever they normally do. What you want to get them used to is doing their hygiene at a certain time, getting dressed at a certain time and showing up in the kitchen in time to make your school bus or their ride.

Start Having an Hour of Quiet Time at Night. Have quiet time at night if you don't already have it. This will become part of their homework time. But for now, let them read a book, comics, or magazines. What they do in quiet time is not as important as the fact that there's no electronics—including cell phones and texting—during this time.

Stop Allowing Your Teen to Go out at Night During the Week: For older kids, about a week before school, they should not be able to go out at night. They have to get back into their school schedule, which means saying, “No going out to socialize after dinner, you have to stay home.” So your child will get used to being home at night. Over the summer, teen-agers tend to get more and more freedom. That's just a natural process, especially if they're older teens. What you want to do is get them to gravitate toward the home, which is one of the centers of their educational life. You go to school from home; you go to sports activities from home; you do your homework at home. In the summer, “outside the home” becomes the focus. Whether it's day camp or camping out with your friends by the lake for four days, the focus is outside of the home. This is good, but now kids need to be brought back in.
Don't be surprised if your child or teen resists this. Let’s face it, it's hard to get back on track. Picture yourself coming back from vacation, and think of how hard it can be to get back in the groove at work. You will probably hear your child make excuses like, “It's not school yet, I'm still on vacation.” That may be true, but I think you want to say to them very clearly, “You need to get back on track. And once you do these things, if you stay home after dinner, you can do what you want except for that hour of quiet time. And after you get up in the morning, you can do what you want after we meet in the kitchen. You can have breakfast, go back to bed, go hang with your friends.”

Remember, Rehearsaland Repetition prepare children for their responsibilities. Intellectualizing doesn't work. Preaching doesn't work. Philosophizing doesn't work. What works is the concrete tasks of rehearsal and repetition. That’s true for all kids—and even more so for teenagers.

Keep Track of Your Child’s Assignments: Have your child’s teacher email you his homework assignments or have him carry an assignment book back and forth, so that there's communication between you and the school. You should know exactly what your child has to do that night. And then you should set up some kind of reward system when he does it.

Consider Rewarding Your Child for Good Grades: If my son got all A's and B’s, he was rewarded with some cash. If he didn't, he didn't get punished; he just didn't get the money. We didn’t threaten him or anything; it was just a standing thing in our home. When my son didn't do well on the test, I asked him, “So what are you going to do differently next time?” That's what you have to do with underachievers. “What'd you learn from this?” They might say, “I don't know, I didn't learn anything.” And then you can say, “Well, I'd like you to learn that maybe you should've studied more. Or maybe you should've studied with a friend.” In fact, sometimes studying with another child helps your child get motivated. Nothing motivates kids like studying with other kids—nothing. In my opinion, well-managed study groups are very helpful.

Have Your Child Earn the Right to Study on His Own: You can also motivate your child to succeed by having them earn rights around the house. “When you get all B's and above, you can go to your room and do your homework. But as long as you have C's and B's, you will not study in your room. More than one C and you're down here.” It's completely dealt with that way. So in order to function more independently, your child has to achieve. He just doesn't get to go to his room and do his homework by himself—he has to be near a parent at all times.

Natural Consequences: Let me be clear: failure is a part of life. By the time kids hit their teenage years, they're sick of failure. But failure is just one of the things that they encounter all along the way, from the time they're two years old to when they're 17. Believe me, kids know when they've failed, they understand what that means. I personally believe that you have to let your child experience natural consequences. This means you should let them fail that year in school or let them fail that subject. If that still doesn't motivate them or if it adds to their lack of motivation, that's when you have to seek professional help.

Why are Smart or “Gifted” Kids Sometimes Underachievers?

Gifted is a funny word. People throw it around a lot these days, and parents cling to it because they crave it. But gifted is as gifted does. In other words, gifts are not gifts until you use them to accomplish something. There may be wonderful gifted painters in the world, but we see DaVinci's work. There may be wonderful, gifted actors, but we see DeNiro's body of work. We see people who have used their gifts and worked hard to create something. Maybe DaVinci and DeNiro were gifted, but they also worked their butts off to produce their accomplishments.

If they told me that my son was gifted, that would not be good news for me unless he was performing. If your child is doing well and they actually tell you he's gifted, great. But if he's not performing and they tell you he's gifted, they're telling you that something's wrong. What they’re telling you is, “He understands what's going on and he's making the non-constructive choice not to do it.” And that's not good news. Also, I would caution parents not to get confused by words like gifted and smart; that's how you're being misdirected. I think that when the school says your child is gifted, sometimes what they’re saying is, “We don’t want to take any responsibility. He's smart enough to do this himself.”

I believe that while sometimes we're too stingy with praise, we’re sometimes too quick to give it. Sometimes we're too quick to say “That's a great job” instead of saying, “I see you’re trying harder. That's cool.” We’re too quick to label a child gifted without giving him the right kind of help. I recommend not to give kids things as if they're completely accomplished in life. Always talk about their progress.

When you’re working with teenagers who are underachievers, it’s hard to sit down and have these conversations sometimes. Believe me, I know it is hard work to talk with teenagers. But you have to do things that are hard if you're a parent; there are no shortcuts. We need to be coaches, teachers and limit setters for our children if we want them to succeed in life. Coaching your child to do better is one of the key ways to become a more effective parent. Always remember, the goal is not to become a good parent—and it’s not even to avoid being a bad parent. Rather, the goal is to become a more effective parent. That’s not ever an easy task, but the goal is extremely worthwhile.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


There is good information here, but one huge issue that is very relevant but missind here is hidden learning disabilities. Many kids are underachieving because an LD or other disability such as ADHD, Asperger's or dyslexia has not been discovered or addressed. This is especially true with gifted kids because people tend to think a child who demonstrates tremendous ability does not have a disability - the giftedness and LD mask each other, and the child shuts down. The inability to deal with the frustration and stress looks exactly like the child is "choosing not" to do the work. Having an awareness of a learning difference and addressing it, would be profoundly helpful for a tremendous number of children, their parents and teachers. Regarding gifted underachievers, look up the term "twice exceptional".

Comment By : Mom to 2E kids

Dear Mom to 2E Kids: Thank you for your comments. You have a good point about undiagnosed learning disabilities. This article for parents on what a diagnosis means for your child might be helpful for parents out there in this situation. Thank you for weighing in!

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

Article was very good; the hard part is implementation, especially since my husband and I have very different views on the subject!!! I'll try to implement some of the strategies in the article. I especially like the part about allowing them to fail and not placing blame but rather asking how will you do things differently next time? Let's hope I can do this!!!

Comment By : Diane B

I was pleased to see this articles on underachivers. I have a 16-year-old son who has strugle all his life with erratic behavior and school performance, low self steem, anxiety and now defiance. I think this ideas are excellent and should ans dound easy to institute, but reality is another thing. My son has been categorized as emotionally impaired at school and had an IEP that was totally different to what the school system says to to with these children,. My question as parent has always been (i am a pediatrician)is there something underlying his issues (brain wiring or chemical disturbance if you will)many drugs have been attempeted and follow the same erratic pattenr of his behavior. I am palning to take him for an evaluation (Dr Freeman's program at Chapel Hill) but i relaize that for an unmotivated child it may not matter what is wrong if he will not even try to improve. My question is do you in your behavioral modification progrma have something to offer in a more structure form than the recommendations in your 2 articles

Comment By : Alorenzana

One more thing after reading othe rcomments. Implementation is not easy. in my case i am divorced, have 4 other children with a mother who has similar issue to my oldest son (the one described). I have as many other parents attempted by rationalization, blaming, philosophising and really it does not work that way. One aspect of my previous question is is there a way to learned through a structured program how to implement this practices within our lives (work, othe rkids, divorce, oppossing viwes of spouses, a difficult to raise child or two, etc..)

Comment By : alorenznana

Great information as usual. We have a son who is extremely smart (the school says gifted) and capable, unfortunately he tends to be unmotivated when the task or work he is responsible for requires 'work' or effort out of him. He was diagnosed with ADD in the second grade, and is now heading in to the sixth grade. He also has a mild form of dyslexia....What We have found about ourselves and our children is that if we allow an excuse, or justify behavior because of a 'label', diagnosis, or basis of difficulty of the task...we all loose. What I mean is that we all are designed to achieve. We all also have many different barriers to achieving the level of success we deem as the 'successful life'. If we allow obstacles, labels, diagnosis, or excuses to stop us or stop our children, that is the biggest failure. Although our son has ADD, takes medicine, and has mild dyslexia we do not expect anything less than his best effort. That is not to say that perfection is required of him or any of us in our family....We believe we are all mistake makers...with the children being professional at it. This is the time in their life where thy are supposed to mess up, test the boundries and LEARN...but we have to allow them opportunities and hold the expectation that they will mess up, they will learn and they will succeed. The problem solving skills that are learned and the outcomes are amazing when this is what we hold ourselves and our children too. Other responders spoke about the difficulty of implementing and the need for a structured program...I suggest you just do it. Make the small changes one at a time. Master the art of not allowing excuses, or justifications for shortcomings...master the art of allowing freedom to mess up...almost expect the mistakes...then find the joy with your kids is the solutions for the future. The biggest key we discovered is you have to be willing to do this with yourself first.

Comment By : heartofamom

* Dear Alorenznana: You ask a very good question about whether The Total Transformation Program is more structured than the series of articles. It is. Each of the seven lessons focuses on important skills, establishing a foundation before using more intricate skills. It also includes a workbook to accompany the lessons. When completing the exercises in the workbook, you take the general concepts you have been learning and apply them to the specific behavioral challenges your family is working on. The beginning lessons will teach you how to change the focus of the relationships in your home by explaining in detail and giving specific phrases to say to create that ‘culture of accountability’ that James talks about. This happens by changing the thinking of the parent first so that they can then teach their child to change theirs. James explains how to assume control and authority in your home, how to approach behaviors as problems that need to be solved, parenting techniques that are not effective, and effective parenting roles. He will help you to recognize the techniques your child uses to avoid responsibility. It’s important to be able to understand the problems so that you can solve them. James would agree with you that attempting to rationalize or using blame to change behaviors does not work. Instead you will learn how to appropriately teach and coach your child, how to help them see that negative behaviors do not solve their problems and how to require them to work with you to come up with solutions to handle their problems more successfully in the future. Thank you for your interest.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thank you for this wonderful article as well as the previous comments. My "LD" 15 yr old son is under motivated. He sailed through middle school on the honor roll but the first year of HS proved to be very different and he got a D in one subject. So, after reading your article I took my son to pick up his yearbook (which got us on the subject of school) and out to lunch (tough to talk back when your mouth is full)and asked the question "What can you differently this year so that you can improve your grades?"And he (we) actually came up with several ideas. The reward for honor roll has always been a dinner out at a restaurant of his choice (food always MOTIVATED teenage boys!)so he didn't like that he had to give that up because of the "D". In dealing with my son, with the help of the TT program and these very informative newsletters, I have discovered that every child is different and you need to find the right "environment" to bring these issues up. You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar! Good luck to all parents out there facing a new school year.

Comment By : gourmet gal

In this article you suggest to 'keep track of your child's assignments' by having child's teacher, etc. However, my children both do well a's and b's and are in high school. I know many parents would say I shouldn't complain. However, college money is tied to grades and these kids do NO HOMEWORK WHATSOEVER. If they don't learn study skills now I fear college will not go as well. My question: is it unreasonable to expect high school teachers to advise me weekly as to what the assignments are so I can keep my kids on track and accountable?

Comment By : Mom

* Dear ‘Mom’: lt’s probably not reasonable to ask your kids’ high school teachers for their assignments because your kids get good grades. Be careful that you’re not expecting perfection from them—which no one can achieve. There are lots of things going on for an adolescent. It’s a time when they are trying to figure out who they are. Their social interactions are very important. They are working on becoming more and more independent of their parents. Your kids are handling all that and doing well in school. Being able to adapt successfully demonstrates they do have skills. Pressure to be perfect and to do more, achieve more, is interpreted as criticism to kids. Requiring perfection from our kids can cause them to not try really challenging tasks, because they won’t be perfect and disappointment will follow. It’s important to be a ‘good enough’ parent—not a perfect parent. Accept that you’ll make mistakes, get tired and not do your best some days, and need to take time just to have fun because that restores our energies. In turn, it’s a blessing to have ‘good enough’ kids. If we give our kids the message that no matter what they do it’s never ‘good enough’, they may really become discouraged and stop trying altogether. If a child's sense of themselves comes only from accomplishments, they think they’re only a good person if they’re perfect. When you’re too hard on yourself, you’ll find mistakes in yourself no matter how well you’re doing. A good goal for kids is to enjoy and feel good about what they have learned in school so that they develop confidence in themselves. I appreciate your question. Many parents wonder how to proceed these days. There are lots of pressures to succeed in our society. It can take some thought to find a healthy balance. Remember you can call the trained specialists on the Support Line whenever you have a question about the program’s techniques. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I'm glad that this article mentioned about the smarter kids who is motivated to do nothing. my son is such a type of person. When I talk to him, he used the word "mental blocker" to execuse himself. He is the freshman in college, but still not putting enough effort. What should I do to motivate him? How should I talk to him? It has been very hard to talk to him about the changing.

Comment By : Hopeless mom

* Dear Hopeless Mom: It is very hard to talk to our kids at times. School work seems to be one of those particularly difficult topics. One way to approach this, since your son is in college, is to consider James’ advice to allow your son to make his own choices regarding his schoolwork and experience whatever consequences—good or bad—that come from his efforts. You could also decide that if he doesn’t meet a certain standard, you will not be able to financially support his education. He has shared with you that he feels "blocked" when trying to do his work. Use James’ system that he describes in this article when discussing this with your son. That’s a system of using the parenting "coaching role" and problem solving language. A problem solving perspective is focused on practical steps and skills to make changes. Ask him what he has learned about those times when he feels blocked? What can he do differently? “Would it be helpful to make sure you’re getting enough sleep?” “Does it seem that you lack a structured time of day that is set aside for only thinking about studies?” Motivation may help your son get started but he will need to know how to problem solve and know what skills are necessary to achieve his goals in order to sustain his efforts and receive good grades.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Ughh this is hard for me, I have 4 children and so far the oldest 3 are proving to be underachievers. My oldest son who is ADHD and his mild Asperger's is now 20, living at home and seems content to work part time in fast food spending all his spare time either sleeping or playing x-box. We charge him rent and are basically forcing him to take at least one college class a semester by enforcing a rent hike whenever he does not take at least one class. Our 17 yr old has given us fits on lots of areas not the least of which is his schooling, he graduated this spring but out ouf 432 he is probably going to end up 427!. Now it has started with out 12 yr old daughter. She, like her brothers, is extremely bright but displays no evidence of regret when she makes poor grades. She continually spends her time in class either reading or drawing and just decides not to do her homework. I believe she lies to me when I ask her if her homework is done and then brings me a note from her teacher the next day telling me "she forgot" or "that assignment wasn't written on the board". She never knows what is going on in her own life. She has missed band concerts and performances with her backstage group at church and she seems totally clueless. Her excuse is usually that no one told her about it and though I never accept that excuse she continues to use it. I'm so frustrated, I just don't know if I can do this all again with her. I already went to school, I did this all and I don't want to have to do it again, to stay on her case all the time and be her responsibility keeper but I feel trapped in this situation because her teachers always come to me and not to her. It seems like I get punished for her poor work ethic. They give her detention but that only punishes me, she sits there and reads for an hour, while I have to get up an hour earlier to get her there and it throws everyone's schedule into an uproar. Nothing I tried with my older boys seemed to make a bit of difference and I'm fresh out of ideas for this child. I find rewarding her for every achievement very difficult, I have such resentment over the situation we find ourselves in how can I offer her praise for bringing that F in Literature up to a D??? She is very capable of being an A student, she just doesn't bother to do her work, it would be different if a D was the best she could do but it's simply not. I want doing well to become just part of life for her not a case of "I'll do well in this class because I want this thing!" When I tried this technique with our boys they would sometimes do what they needed to do to get the "thing" then fall right back into their same old routine. It's all very wearying and daunting and I'm tired!!

Comment By : 4hyprkidsmom

* Dear ‘4hypkidsmom’: It is a tough job to be a parent. It’s hard to keep up the energy when that task feels overwhelming and it can sometimes feel that way when parenting kids with learning disabilities or behavior challenges. You mentioned that ADHD runs in your family and that a major issue with your daughter seems to be forgetfulness. ADHD can look different in females, such as daydreaming, procrastination, time management issues and forgetfulness--among other symptoms. Consider having her tested for ADHD by someone familiar with treating girls with ADHD. Kids are usually motivated to do school work if they know what is expected of them, feel they are capable of doing it and believe they will receive some satisfaction out of doing it. We can be important sources of satisfaction to them by remarking on their real achievements and giving them encouragement. It can be frustrating to see that your daughter is receiving a D in her class, but it’s still movement in the right direction. You can use the progress to build toward the next movement—a ‘C”. One of the best resources we can recommend to you is the Support Line. Parents frequently call us when they just need someone to talk to about parenting issues. We can not only offer support, but specific ideas on what to do next using the techniques in the Total Transformation program. Please give us a call.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I really like the motiving under achievers articles. I have a 17 year old at home is an under achiever. He uses the words "I don't care" "If you don't give me what I want then I'm not giving you what you want" He was doing terrible in school due hanging out with the wrong crowd. He started having sex and doing drugs. I made him do a thirty day rehab and numerous counseling session before I pulled him out of high school to get his GED because he was still easily influenced by these kids. He went to Lincoln Challege but did not complete it. Now he is at home trying to get his GED from a community college. He is still not motivated so I decided I was only going to give him $2.00 a day to get the the coummunity college and that was it until he gets his GED. Everyday is still a battle. But these articles are giving me more insight on how to handle him.

Comment By : Ernestine

A lot of what you are saying here makes very good sense. My problem with it is that I don't understand how the "natural consequences" of letting the kid fail will motivate them when making good grades, or even passing, seems to have no intrinsic value to the kid. "So I made a D in biology. So what?" As parents we know that there are long term consequences -- an inability to get into a good college, to get and maintain a good job, etc. But these are all abstractions to my 15-year old. Adding to the difficulty is that we live in a split household with joint custody. So I might monetize good grades, for example, or not allow electronics until they are earned with an equal time spent studying. But my daughter, who knows she will get whatever she wants money-wise out of my ex, could care less about my $20 for an A, and the rules about electronics (TV, video games, Facebook, texting, etc.) only make her want NOT to be at my house and constantly let me know that with attitude and withholding behavior. Is there any hope in this situation?

Comment By : Frustrated

* To ‘Frustrated’: This is certainly a hard situation to be in. You are doing your best to offer some extrinsic motivation to your daughter because as you say she has no intrinsic motivation to do well in school. That is helpful, and at the same time difficult because your efforts seem to be undermined by her dad based on your description of the situation. If you have a cordial relationship with dad, you could attempt to talk to him about the common goals you both have for your daughter. Once you talk about the goals you agree on you can try to pick one and come up with a plan together for how you will help her achieve it (See James Lehman’s article on parenting differences for more suggestions). Of course I understand that this would go well in an ideal situation and it may not be realistic. If you aren’t able to have a successful talk with dad, then the best you can do is focus on what you can control: how you respond and how you hold your daughter accountable for meeting your standards in your home. Here is another article you might find helpful: The Disneyland Daddy. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I have a 16 year old daughter who is a junior now in high school, she hasn't been doing good in school since the middle of 8th grade her grades just all went down hill. She is a diabetic and when she gets either highs or lows blood sugars it affects her concentration in class but that's only sometimes. I'm really concerned cause since Freshman year she has failed most of her classes, she has been going to summer school and now to credit recovery after school to makeup some courses she failed but now she failed like 5 classes this semester which now I know there is no possible way she can make up all of these credits in order to graduate next year and she is a smart girl, she pass the exit exam her first try she did well I believe she is just not into school but me and her father have explained to her how important school is, she just gets too far behind in her work and then its impossible for her to catch up and this happens every year since her freshman year, I email all of her teachers weekly but it still doesn't help her I can only do so much she needs to meet me half way and do her part but she doesn't, I took away her cell phone, facebook all that even going out with her friends. She's a good kid, doesn't hang out with any bad crowds doesn't get into fights doesn't' talk back to anyone I just don't know why she chooses to be like this and it makes me very upset to know I won't see her walk with her class in 2013, I see lots of parents that don't even get involved with their child's school but I do and still she doesn't seem to care, anyone have any suggestions.

Comment By : Nan63

* To Nan63: It sounds like you are feeling very upset about your daughter’s school performance, and the possibility of not graduating on schedule. We recommend first checking with your daughter’s doctor, and ensuring that her blood sugar is under control, as you noted that can affect her concentration. Once you have done that, we recommend doing some problem solving with her about how she can get better grades, which may include doing her homework at the kitchen table, or showing you her assignments each night. We recommend having a structured homework time during the evenings, which may include doing homework, reviewing notes, reading ahead in her classes, or working on a project. Once she has done her homework, she could earn a privilege that evening, such as using her cell phone or Facebook. I am attaching some articles I think you might find helpful: End the Nightly Homework Struggle 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids & Sinking Fast at School: How to Help Your Child Stay Afloat. Good luck to you and your daughter as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

We have a 15 year old son who is a sophomore in high school. He has done very well all the way to middle school. He struggled in 9th grade but managed to hold on to 3.0 GPA at the end of the year. This year, he has been getting Fs in every course except PE. He does not turn in his homework, assignments and we have never seen him study. We hired private tutor for Chemistry and Math to boost his knowledge. He solves really hard questions with his tutor and we all get confident that he will ace the test but he fails. We have taken him to psychiatrist for evaluation. Everything came back negative and we were told that we have a normal child. He says he cares about his grades and not being able to finish high school but his actions show the opposite. He has always been good at Math and Computers but he is failing those topics too. We told him that he does not get his act together, we will put him in boarding school. We took away his goodies. We tried to talk to him as suggested on this page. Still no luck. As parents, we are desparate. We are so consumed by this, we are both afraid that we will lose our jobs. I cry everyday on the way home. We can't sleep at night. We read horror stories about teens who fail to finish high school and fail to get their lives back in order. Our child was the best kid ever until he turned 15. He learned how to read on his own at age 4,5. We never told him to do his homework or study until this year. We watched him at age 5 building complex Lego structures designed for 8 year old, patiently putting one brick at a time. Now, we watch sadly his destroying his future, his chances. This is even too sad to write.

Comment By : DesperateParents

* To ‘DesperateParents’: It sounds like you are feeling pretty torn up about your son’s performance in school. It can be so hard when you have a bright child to whom you’ve given all the tools necessary to succeed and they still don’t. You’ve done a lot of work here, and your son has some responsibility to make a better choice for himself. It might help for you to focus on taking care of yourselves emotionally and holding him accountable for his choices. Instead of taking away all of your son’s “goodies” for a long time, it might be more effective to let him earn those privileges each day by studying for 90 minutes, for example. If he studies and does his HW during the study time, he gets his electronics that evening. No work done means no privileges that evening and he can try again the next day. This might help to increase his motivation a bit. I am including an article by Debbie Pincus on how to handle it when your child makes poor choices for himself: Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices. We know this is hard. We wish you luck as you continue to work through it. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Ha ha ha! Our dopey kid spent his entire school life underachieving. He wouldn't do his homework, wouldn't read the books, wouldn't study, wouldn't get the good grades he could have. He got so-so grades. As a result, he got into college, but not a good one. Then, he decided to do the same nonsense in college, and wouldn't you know it, he flunked out! We went down to school to pack him up, and when we left, we asked him where it was he wanted to go. Long story short, he learned on the ride "home" that "home" was not going to be his destination. We prepped his friends' parents for this, and they promised not to offer him a place to stay for more than a couple of days. He opted to go to our town, and we dropped him off and put $500 in his hands. It seemed like a lot to him, but we knew it would not last long. He was quickly forced to take a menial job. Wouldn't you know it, he didn't do too well, and lost that job, and had to take another. We'd hear all about it every Friday, when we invited him to eat a nice meal. It was only a couple of months before he said he was ready to try to go to school again. We balked, and told him he'd have to prove himself at community college first, and that we'd pay for books and tuition, but he'd still have to eke out a living on his own. Some kids can't see the future until the future is now.

Comment By : Largo Lagg

This is a great article but for us unfortunately we have tried many of these techniques with no results. I have a 14 year old daughter and a 12 year old daughter and I am basically throwing up my hands and giving up. She doesnt seem to care what we take away from her ; she will still blow off her homework so we are putting her in a school for kids who are really behind; maybe then she will see how bad life can be when she has to spend all day in a cubicle with no challenges.

Comment By : ldibarra

My daughter is nearly 14, in grade 9 and has been having a tough time with studies. She has a board exam coming up in Grade 10 which is very crucial as it will determine which college she can go to. She has an IQ of over 130 and did well in school till grade 4, after which her grades started dropping. Since it was not a major drop we didn't really pay much attention, however the past 2 years, the situation is such that she claims she can't remember anything she studies, homework is often forgotten and left undone, classwork is incomplete etc. her test scores from school are really bad. SHe has one on one tutors for each subject, despite which she wants me to sit with her when she is studying, and take up almost every line of the matter. I have tried discussing with her the consequences, withheld privileges or things she likes,set time limits, hand held, been patient, been encouraging etc but nothing seems to bother her. He attitude is simply that she doesn't care- not even if the phone, video games, computer, treats are being withheld. Nothing seems to make a difference. I am at my wits end because i can see how she day dreams while the tutors are with her and in school too. She is otherwise a warm, bubbly child, but in school is the very quiet and hardly asks any questions. It is struggle to make her do her day to day work and then before exams its a nightmare, because she has to cram a lot of portion in a short duration and ends up with poor grades. It honestly does not seem to bother her at all about her grades and I wonder if by pushing her or being strict with her having to study at specific times or taking up her work, is she getting more anti school/studies? Please help me understand what I should do.

Comment By : Worried

* To “Worried”: Thank you for writing in to Empowering Parents. I can hear how frustrated you are with your daughter’s choices. It can be difficult to watch as your child makes choices you know are going to impact her future. Her disinterest in achieving good grades and doing well in school probably does come across as an apparent lack of motivation. Something to keep in mind is everyone is motivated, as James points out in his article Motivating the Unmotivated Child. The problem is your daughter is probably not motivated by the things you would like her to be, namely, getting good grades and doing well on the board exams. As a parent, you’re doing what you can do to ensure she has the prospects for a good education. From what you have written, it sounds like you have given your daughter many tools and opportunities to be academically successful but she has chosen not to avail herself of those opportunities. Sometimes, it takes the natural consequences of a child’s choices to make them uncomfortable enough to make different choices. Many parents have a difficult time allowing the natural consequences to happen because it can be difficult to watch your child fail. It’s important to remember that failure also gives your child the chance to make different choices. It sounds like you are doing what you can do as far as setting up structure within the home, giving her extra help when she needs it and also holding her accountable for not meeting the academic expectations. At this point, it is your daughter’s responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities or not. As difficult as it may be right now, try not to awfulize where your daughter is going to end up. Sometimes kids need to take a different path to success than the one we have in mind for them. Here are a couple more articles you may find helpful: Sinking Fast at School: How to Help Your Child Stay Afloat & 10 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Better in School. We wish you and your family luck as you continue working through this. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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