My 14 year old has lost interest in school

My 14-year-old son has never really applied himself in school, particularly in the last year. As a result, it can be a battle to get him to sit down and do homework, and we seem to be always in conflict about this.

Recently, he has started saying that he is not interested in school and that he wants to do other things. I’m wondering what to do, whether I should just take the pressure off and let him do badly in school and not reach his potential. Or is there something else I could do to encourage him. For example, can you bribe/incentivise adolescent boys in relation to homework? Could I pay him to do a bit more homework and is this a good idea?

Parents have a responsibility to support their children’s education and to set rules and routines around school and homework. Indeed, many studies show that when parents take a positive interest in their child’s education by working closely with schools and supporting their children’s learning at home, this leads to better educational outcomes for their children.

However, it is crucial that this support is positive because if homework becomes a negative experience and a constant battle between parent and child, then this sort of parent attention can be counterproductive and can reinforce the child’s negative view of education as well as damaging the parent-child relationship. You are right to take a step back and to consider if there are any other positive ways you can support your son’s education and to help him reach his potential.

The first thing to do is really tune into your son and to understand what underpins his reluctance about homework. For example, it could be that he is struggling a bit with the schoolwork. Many intelligent children have a specific learning disability (such as an undiagnosed language disorder or dyslexia) that is hidden and which makes it difficult for them to succeed within the formal learning system in school.

You might want to talk to his teachers to see if this might be the case because the recognition of specific learning problems can be a relief to children, and there are specific supports that can make a big difference to their learning as well as their confidence and motivation.

Alternatively, your son may simply not be motivated about the curriculum or he may be questioning the value of the subjects he is being taught. Often this is the case when children approach adolescence, when they naturally question the point of adult values such as education. In this situation, it is important to discuss the value of education, and to explore what motivates him and/or what career he really wants to do, showing how his schoolwork leads to this.

It also helps to be creative about how learning happens and to find a way that builds on his strengths (for example, project-based learning, reading books about special interests together and so on).

In addition, some children may not be succeeding in homework as they are employing poor study strategies or don’t have a good study routine. In these instances, there is a lot you can do to help as a parent and in the Parents Plus programmes we suggest three specific steps to helping children study.

Firstly, you need to agree a study routine with him which sets aside a distraction-free time to study in the day followed by a natural reward. For example, after school he might take a short break, then do an hour’s homework/study, before doing a leisure activity such as a sport.

Secondly, it helps if you are around when he is studying and take an interest in his homework as he does it, without getting over-involved. This might mean helping him plan his homework and what he will do first, then taking a step back and letting him get on with it. You might check in with him occasionally and review progress, but you must give him space to do the homework himself.

The final step is to have a period of review after the homework and to go over what he has done – asking him what he learned and what he thought about the homework. Getting to know your son’s subjects and being encouraging and interested in a genuine way is likely to be helpful in keeping him motivated and focused.

You ask in your question whether it is a good idea to incentivise children with a reward or bribe to complete their homework. In my experience, this can work really well and increase a teenager’s motivation, though it is important how you set this up.

For example, you could establish a contract with your son whereby he can earn a small amount of pocket money each day he completes his homework. In the contract, you can clearly agree the steps of a good study routine and specify a time when you will review homework and talk about it.

The key is to find a reward that motivates your son and that you are happy to give. For example, if you don’t want to give an extra reward, you can make an existing privilege – such as TV or PlayStation time or an existing pocket money allowance – dependent on completing homework or you can have your son work towards a bigger reward in the future for example, 20 successful homework, completions results in a special trip.

In helping a young teenager succeed in education, you can only go so far as a parent. Ultimately, it is down to the child how much effort they put in and what they choose as valuable. However, what you can do as a parent is to establish a good learning environment and to make rewards in the home dependent on putting in effort at study.

It is also important to tune into your child’s natural abilities and realise that while for some children the formal learning of school is their forte, this is not the case for everyone. The key is to find out what are your children’s natural talents, interests and abilities – whether these are within the school system or not – and to help them explore these in all aspects of their life.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, March 2011.  John writes in the Irish Times Health+Family  every Tuesday.