Is Your Child Failing or Unmotivated?

"... changing the environment or the approach taken by a childís caretaker is more powerful than individual counseling and therapy for children."

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D,


Is Your Child Failing or Not Motivated?

For most children school is a place to socialize, learn and be active. The vast majority of kids love school most of the time. But for some kids, life in school is unpleasant and feels more like a prison sentence. These kids would rather stay home, sleep in, do nothing and face their parentís anger. Many of these kids donít turn in homework that was completed on time.

Reasons Why Kids Arenít Motivated

Nearly a hundred books have been written on how to deal with unmotivated children. But for the most part, children become unmotivated, stop trying or end up failing school for simple and easy to understand reasons.

Individual Learning Differences. Children are different in their learning styles. This can include their need for variety and frequency of individual and group interaction, visual, verbal and auditory stimulation, physical exercise, as well as the level of feedback and encouragement they receive. The factors that seem to impact a childís performance the most are class size, duration of class, role models, the approach that a teacher takes and the relationship or bond between the student and teacher.

Neurological Learning Disabilities. It is sad to say, but a fair number of children give up or fail because of mild neurological problems that affect reading, writing, numerical reasoning and even their ability to understand what people are saying in noisy classroom and group discussions. For the most part, these include learning, visual and auditory processing disorders as well as conditions that create wandering minds or hyperactive bodies. Children who are bright and intelligent can have difficulty learning.

Psychological Disorders that Effect Learning. These problems mostly include various kinds of depression and anxiety or grief. Grades will often drop when children are faced with adjusting to stressful changes in a childís family, social or living environment. Insecure children would rather fail without trying than they are willing to try and risk failing. It is easier to not care than to care and be a disappointment. Traumatic events can produce immediate or delayed reactions that often show up as reduced interest and performance in school. Parent education and coaching can really help prevent and resolve these problems.

Social Pressure and Distractions. A lot of kids become overly involved with friends and activities that lack adequate parental guidance or supervision. Exhausted parents are relieved when their child can finally entertain their self. Unfortunately, children want the same privileges that other children have even though these privileges are no earned or respected. Children adopt the attitude of children they form emotional bonds with. Many are not ready for such responsibility just because they can make the right promises. Routines and consistent rules regarding activities and social interaction are essential to minimize these factors.

Structure and Study Habits. Very few children learn or have the necessary structure and routines that help them study efficiently and effectively. Music, television and family activities have a tremendous impact on learning and a childís completion of homework. Internet and video games provide a great deal of stimulation and tend to make homework a low or last priority. Limiting or eliminating these distractions early in a childís life can save a great many problems.

Nutrition, Exercise and Sleep. These are essential and often overlooked. Even today, many children do not have proper nutrition in the morning hours. Schools provide healthy lunch options. But healthy diets are sometimes replaced with sugar, caffeine and other simple carbohydrates that energize, cause irritability and depress some children. Exercise levels at school have decreased nation-wide in the past 30 years as budgets decrease and schools focus more on academics as well as programs for children with learning disabilities. Some hyperactive kids are climbing the walls in schools that have little or no physical education program.

Immaturity and Impulsiveness. Children develop and mature at different rates. Early maturation can be as difficult as delays. Compounding this, our culture and media do not instill a calm relaxed attitude. Everything is supposed to be exciting, rewarding, creative, fun and apparently within our grasp. Children do not quickly or easily learn the value of persistence and determination as well as the virtue of remaining calm in the face of temptation, excitement and curiosities.

Alcohol and Other Drugs. There are no two issues that have greater impact on education that alcohol and other drugs. Marijuana these days has a long lasting impact and creates a deep sense of apathy as well as loss of interest in activities that require effort. Grades usually drop because of marijuana at which time friends change dramatically. The effects of alcohol is not long lasting but the attitudes of those who sneak, drink or party will eventually impact a childís attitude about school.

What Should Parents Be Concerned About

Relying on Quick Fix Medications. An alarming pattern is emerging in the use of medications nationally. Some states are imposing limits on school as well as penalties on physicians who are medicating children in response to a lack of resources in school systems. The use of stimulants has raised concern nationally. Children can lose 10 to 20 pounds over the course of a year taking stimulants that help them concentrate. The use of antidepressants is becoming more and more routine in borderline cases of depression and anxiety. Children are gaining weight and can end up sedated by these drugs. Right or wrong, teenage boys are upset and worried because they rendered impotent. Parents who canít afford counseling and donít have time to take a parent education course will naturally resort to a quick medication fix fearing their childís attitude and confidence will shattered if they donít.

Focusing Too Much on the Child and Not the Environment. There is enough research to demonstrate that changing the environment or the approach taken by a childís caretaker is more powerful than individual counseling and therapy for children. More importantly, giving children hope, a desire to change or the expectation that things will change with effort is nearly as powerful as giving a child advice, directions and therapy. Counseling and therapy can help but only when there is an effective relationship or "alliance" between the school, the child, parents, their family and a counselor.

Using Discipline that Doesnít Work. In short, punishment is the least effective way to teach children how to be successful. The fear of punishment doesnít work with a lot of children. Using punishment to teach and motivate children is a waste of time once children become more concerned more about not getting caught than they are changing their behavior. Thatís one reason why children learn to lie so much. In contrast to punishment, children learn more by practice and the example set by others. It is indeed ironic that some children will take a chance and accept punishment in exchange for their freedom of choice. A successful life is not the absence of failure. A successful life is the fulfillment of a childís potential.

What Can Parents Do

Finding solutions is not easy. One of the best things you can do is to get copies of evaluations and keep records of any incidents and communications with your school. A diagnosis is helpful but not nearly as important as a gaining a "useful understanding" of the problem. More important than anything else, parents must create an alliance with a school, teachers, parenting experts and a counselor that get results. That means a deep desire for results, not more of the same that already isn't working.

All this requires that parents monitor their childís behavior and progress. Parent may need to supervise their child more closely when problems surface. I have discovered in virtually every case that parents do not understand the role and proper use of reward, reinforcement and punishment. It is not enough to think you know. Learning how these principles work is essential and can turn failure into success. Donít wait until problems are severe.

copyright 2002 to 2008, Michael G. Conner