I have a 14-year-old son who is a lovely easy-going child by nature, but he has absolutely no interest in school. He is in second year at the moment and is scraping by. His teachers say he never stops talking in class and he has constant notes in his journal about missing books, unfinished homework, etc. He lives for the weekend when he can go out with his friends, but won’t settle into doing any work. I would welcome any advice about this.
Motivating a teenager who appears little interested in applying himself in school can feel like hard work. While as a parent you can insist on study routines and that homework must be done, these strategies by themselves may not help if your teenager does not see the value of study.
Teenagers can either resist your efforts to make them study or they can simply go through the motions, working ineffectively and not learning anything of value.
When it comes to education, motivation can appear a little bit of a mysterious quality that some teenagers naturally possess but which others have in short supply.
In thinking of how to respond, the first step is to try to understand his objection or reluctance to apply himself in school. What is it about the curriculum that makes it hard for him to apply himself? Are there particular subjects that are more difficult than others?
Explore your teen’s learning
It is worth considering whether he has any particular challenges in studying or applying himself. For example, many intelligent teenagers can have specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia that make formal written learning a source of frustration for them.
Talk to the school to see if this might be an issue as acknowledging a problem such as this makes a big difference, and there are lots of resources and creative learning strategies that can help.
Even if your son does not have a specific challenge in this area, it could be that the way some of the subjects are taught don’t match his preferred learning style. Perhaps he is less interested in formal rote learning and more interested in project work or learning that is experiential or that involves teamwork or shared projects. If this is the case, is there any way that these could be encouraged in his learning?
Explore his unique talents
It is worth taking time to understand what motivates your son and to see how this can be linked to school work and study. What are his specific talents and passions? What subjects in school is he good at and which ones inspire his interest? What are his hopes for his career and his life?
It is important to start this adult conversation with him, so he can begin to understand the rationale for study and to make sense of his choices. Ultimately, unless your son is persuaded that school work is linked to achieving his own dreams and passions, he is likely to remain unmotivated.
Encourage positive friendships
It is also important to recognise the social dimension to your son’s motivation in school. If he is with friends who are interested in study and who are succeeding in school, this is likely to influence him and encourage him to participate.
While there is only so much you can do in terms of influencing his choice of peer group, you can certainly encourage friendships that might have a positive influence in this regard.
Get involved as a parent
With a young teenager, there is a also a role for parents setting rules and establishing routines around homework and study. At 14 years of age, he may not yet see the benefits of school and you need to set a structure which keeps him studying so he still has options and opportunities when he is old enough to make his own decisions.
Research shows that parents taking an active interest in children’s school work – and the particular subjects they are doing – can have a positive impact on their motivation.
For this reason, it can be useful to review with him on a daily basis his homework and what he is learning in school. Try to make this a positive experience where you focus on what he is learning and what he has achieved rather than a focus on what is not going well.
Consider an incentive
It is also perfectly reasonable to employ an incentive scheme with him. For example, you might have a system where he earns points for applying himself at homework each day and for going over with you what he has learned. These points can be cashed in for agreed rewards at the weekend.
While, of course, an incentive system can only go so far in encouraging independent motivation, it can get a teenager into a good habit of study that keeps options open and it is certainly more helpful than ineffective criticism and nagging.
Finally, 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, etc.
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.
In the long term, the aim is to find out what your son’s natural talents, interests and abilities are (whether these are within the school system or not) and to help him explore these in all aspects of his life.
Dr.John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2012. John writes in the Irish Times every Tuesday.