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Motivating Underachievers Part 2: Get Your Unmotivated Child on Track before School Starts

by James Lehman, MSW

In Part 2 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.

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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, Rehearsal and 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

For more information about motivating underachievers, see Motivating Underachievers Part I: When Your Child Says "I Don't Care"

Motivating Underachievers II: Get Your Unmotivated Child on Track before School Starts reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Author: James Lehman, a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents, worked with troubled teens and children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.

Reviewed by athealth on February 6, 2014.