Is Education a Priority in Your Family? How to Motivate Teenagers

By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman, MA

” Andy is very unmotivated when it comes to school work,” Mrs. Andrews complained.
“I think he’s lazy. He’s more interested in socializing than in doing his work.
Can a tutor help?”

Well, if a student is totally uncooperative, no matter what you do and whom you hire, you cannot force information into his brain. Like the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, … But since we are a tutoring company, we want to help. So I asked tutors, parents, and students, “Why are some kids not motivated in school and what can we do to change this?” Laziness and peer pressure did not constitute the majority of responses.

The consensus seems to be that teenagers do not want to be unmotivated but end up that way due to various difficulties and pressures. Very often, they do not understand their work and need help. If they do not receive the help they need, they fall further and further behind. According to tutor Karen Thurber, it is embarrassing to struggle and then fail anyway – better to not work and fail. Observes Elizabeth Ferris, Director of Falls Church Tutoring, sometimes students who think they can’t do their work will hang around with other kids who don’t work, leading to the negative effects of peer pressure. Another tutor points out that some students may have been pushed into advanced classes which are too difficult for them, or the subject matter may not be taught clearly at school. Students with attention problems may be missing important information.

Parents, pay attention to your teenager! If she is unmotivated or receives poor grades at school, is her poor performance due to her not understanding the material, to depression, to drug use, or to negative influence from peers? If you suspect a learning disability or attention disorder, have your child tested. Stand up to the school system to make sure your child receives the services she needs, such as speech therapy or a special reading program. In some cases, you may need to use private services to supplement what the school offers.

It is especially important for the doors of communication between you and your teenager to be open. If he does not talk to you much, look for signs of a problem, such as reluctance to do homework or poor grades. Then confront him in a supportive and helpful way. When he does talk to you, listen. One tutor emphasizes, “Put yourself in the mind of your child and try to understand his frustrations.” In No More Nagging, Nit-picking, & Nudging, Jim Wiltens describes a father whom, when asked if he could think of any reason for his son’s choice of friends, replied, ‘He must be crazy because there’s nothing he can get from those losers.’ Wiltens states, “Adults who make an effort to see the world from a teen’s viewpoint are rewarded for their effort. The reward is rapport…The first step in motivating a teenager is to see the world from his viewpoint.”

Once you understand your child better, you can best discover how to motivate him. According to parent Monica Gallegos, the biggest mistake a parent can make is trying to make your kids into what you think they should be. Better to let them discover their own interests and goals. Then you can relate school subjects to what they need in order to pursue those goals. Sarah Medearis, Math and Science tutor and Environmental Consultant, agrees. She tries to relate tutoring to something the student likes in the outside environment and to motivate him to achieve the same level of focus with his schoolwork. While one math problem may not be meaningful now, later in life, a similar math problem may very well be meaningful. She asks students about their visions of what they will do after high school, including college and career, and connects that to what they are doing now in high school. She also relates math and science to problems in the real world, as she must do in her own profession.

The most successful long-term motivators come from within and cannot be forced. Teenagers generally do not and should not do things merely to please their parents. They need to succeed for their own sense of self-worth. In Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller states that young children give up their true sense of self to please their parents and to be loved. In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher notes that this need for approval shifts in early adolescence from parents to peers. She points out that many girls lose their sense of self, which includes their own thoughts and feelings, in favor of succumbing to peer pressure – doing what is expected. Better to make sure children have their own ideas and interests all along in order to promote a strong self-esteem.

Self-esteem can be helped along by helping your child to find a sport or activity in which she excels. Consequently, a child can find a basic love of achievement. According to tutor Adam Johnson, “In this way, the child gains confidence and experiences the pleasure of success. Confidence spurs motivation.”

Students can gain confidence in school by receiving support as needed. Parent Patty Moskowitz suggests that students study with friends. Tutor Rachel Kelley suggests that parents read some of the same books their children are reading for school and sit down to do homework with their children once a week or so, “to have a realistic sense of what the kid is up against.” Children need to feel that they are not alone; they have support. Parents should keep in touch with their children’s teachers to keep abreast of what is happening in school and how their children are doing.

Parents should convey to their children that education is important and useful. Student Maggie Foarde remarks that her parents’ high expectations were what encouraged her sisters and her to work hard in school. Whenever her parents perceived that there was a problem, they encouraged and helped their children in any way they could. There are various indicators of whether or not school is a priority in your family. Tutor Karen Thurber notes that outside jobs sometimes take the focus away from school, causing grades to drop. Tutor Rachel Kelley points out that distractions such as the telephone can block a student’s concentration. While other activities and part-time jobs are important, children should understand that their education presides.

Parents can motivate their children by being models; they can read regularly and discuss current events with their children. No family members should watch television excessively. Families can make good use of TV by watching educational programming and news together. One parent explained that her children observe that she and her husband continuously take courses to broaden their own education. In addition to parents, adult mentors, such as teachers, coaches, tutors or music teachers, can be instrumental in boosting a child’s self-esteem and confidence and in helping a child find direction.

Ultimately, parents should strive to have their children understand from an early age that their job is going to school, doing their best to successfully complete their schoolwork and homework, and learn and retain what they have learned, for much of this information will be useful in the future. While parents should be available to provide support, students must be held accountable. This does not mean that they should be pressured to receive all A’s, only that do their best and work hard.

When children are successful with their schoolwork, they should be rewarded. Sincere praise is usually the best reward. For some children, additional incentives such as a special trip or activity may help. According to tutor Rachel Kelley, simple personal items such as a purple pen or a pink notebook motivates some students to write. On the other hand, negative reinforcement (e.g. You are so lazy, why can’t you buckle down like your brother Joe?) never produces positive results but only convinces children that they can’t do it. Encouragement and confidence are what they need.

Most importantly, children (including teenagers and even adults for that matter) need to be nurtured. They need personal attention; they need to experience success; and they need to learn to think for themselves and to believe that their ideas are important and valuable. Tutor Liz Ferris says that when she tutors math, she goes back to the beginning to make sure the student experiences success. Liz tries to help students gain confidence, and tells them, “I know you can do it.” She remarks, “A lot of it is trying to change their attitudes.”

Attitudes cannot be changed overnight, but they can be improved with effort. Listen to your children, support them, encourage them, and help them with their difficulties. Find out their interests, help them become successful, and help them spread success to various arenas of their lives. Parent Patty Moskowitz remarks that teenagers need their parents even more than younger children do. Don’t let your teenagers fool you.

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