Motivating The Unmotivated

I have a 15 year old son.  He doesn’t like school very much and he certainly doesn’t like giving up his time to revise for exams.  Sound familiar?  He’s obviously doing something right though because he got an excellent report commending him for his attitude towards work but with exams coming up, it’s like getting blood out of a stone to get him to sit down and spend any revise and compounded by the good report!  So what do you do?

Let’s face it.  Revision is boring!  It’s a heinous task for many young kids who would much rather be doing something else.  Sitting down in a quiet place going over the same old same old with teacher’s voices ringing in their heads and the old nag nag nag of maybe Mum or Dad, doesn’t really tick teenage boxes.  You can bribe them with sweets, trips out, rewards but the bottom line is, when all is said and done, these incentives have short term worth.

So what can be done?  How do, we as parents motivate the unmotivated?

The bad news is that there is no simple solution!  The good news is that there is a lot we can do as parents.

The number one rule though is not to alienate the child in question.  If you have a stubborn child, the expression, you will drive the devil in, comes to mind.  Been there?  Thought so – so have I!

Alienating teenagers just reaffirms what they think they already know and that is adults don’t understand.  My son didn’t do very well in a surprise test at the beginning of the year and the comment on the paper from the teacher was “This is the worst test I’ve ever marked”.  Six months later, my son, despite considerable improvement and a little more praise from this teacher, is still brewing on that comment and why?  Because it seriously undermined his faith in himself.  It sets him on edge and the old defences come up.  It instils fear which paralyses the brain and it does nothing to encourage him to try a bit harder and to do better.  It’s a hard hitting statement that does nothing to reinforce a better pathway and for that reason, despite considerable improvement since, it’s knocked him for six.  Likewise, as parents we need to avoid making hard hitting statements.  “You’re so lazy” “You’ll fail” “You’re driving me mad” all only serve to knock a child down when really we want to encourage them.  How much better would it have been for that teacher to write “you clearly struggled with this, but let’s see how much you can improve next time round”  Or how much better for the parent to say “so you don’t like this work thing eh?  OK well let’s look at what you do like and maybe what you’d like to do” (as a means of identifying that really what you like to do (in the future) means a little more hard graft now.

It’s very easy to fall into a negative mindset and is very disparaging to have a child that won’t work but that’s about your emotions – not theirs.  Tweaking the way we see lazy and failure is the first step to understanding that we have a lot of power to encourage our young people to see the validity in work and the reward of success.  And by turning out negative phrases into more affirming ones that proactively seek out change is a good first step in working with the child as opposed to against them.

Secondly, identifying what they want to do in the future opens up a plethora of opportunity.  Pretty much everything nowadays relies on at least some success at school.  We’re not talking As and A*’s but a good basic grounding in the core subjects.  Helping a child to have a focus on what they want to do and working out a strategy to reach their goal, empowers the will to do it.  If they see that they want to be “x” and that they need “abc” to get there, then “x” becomes the focus and “abc” the means to achieve that focus.  They will want to get through the “abc” to get to “x”.  It’s like a meal – you might not like the carrots or the greens, but clear the plate and the chocolate pudding is waiting at the other side!  Of you might not like having to walk to the pub, but that cool, delectable glass of wine waiting there for you is a good enough pull.  If the focus is attractive enough, the magnetism will be there.

In the case of my son, he wants to be a professional musician with a trajectory to go to Music College to take do his undergraduate in performance.  That is his sole goal.  He practices for hours every day.  He loves his music and doesn’t want to do anything else but thankfully he realises to achieve his ends, he has to tick a few boxes en route; those boxes being a good clutch of GCSE’s and a few A Levels to access the music course he wants to do.  And so the exams become part of the integral part of his journey to his dream.  His trajectory might be a degree but equally there are few jobs nowadays that will not want the basics so school (or learning) is important.

But is that enough motivation?  End goals and dreams are a long way off when you’re a teenager.  So what else is holding a child back.

For some exams are daunting!  The sheer number are overwhelming and let’s face it, with government targets, the pressure at school is often immense.  The pressure from other children is often also an issue with competition rife and certain parents adding to that by pushing their children all the way.

Pushing, a child, to my mind, simply doesn’t have longevity.  Some might swear by it, but in the long run the only person that is going to make a difference in your child’s life is your child.  If they are not doing it for themselves, they ultimately will not do it at all.  And the earlier they learn the power in autonomy and self-propulsion the easier everyone’s life will be.  Helping them realise what they need to do and to assist in that process, however, is not pushy.  It’s all down to how it’s done and it’s all down to who ultimately is driving the process.

As parents, we need to hand the keys over and then sit in the passenger seat as a navigator.  Our children have chosen their destination (remember setting the focus earlier), but as co-driver, we as parents have access to the map to help steer a course as and when needed.  Part of that is seeing the blocks and road closures.  Another part of it is seeing where the roads are busy and jammed.

In terms of motivation, this means asking open ended non-judgemental questions and keeping the lines of communication open.  It also means making a realistic assessment of what your child can cope with.  What do they need to do well at to achieve their goal.  What do they like doing and importantly what don’t they like.

So for instance, the school’s agenda might be ten end of year exams.  They’re internal and therefore not the real GCSE’s but they are an important foundation for what is to come.  However, that foundation is as much an emotional one as an academic one.  If you’re child goes into the exams prepared with realistic expectations (that are their expectations) then they will perform better in the real things with less anxiety.

There is a lot written about coping with anxiety and revision aids.  That’s not what this blog post is about so do go google strategies to help with that but importantly let’s be resolved to work with our children.

As for my son, he’s now working with me on his revision.  We sit down and go through a page or so at a time.  We make it interesting sometimes unconventionally so but the bottom line is that despite the yawning that goes on, the subject material is going in.  We’ve chosen a few subjects to really focus on and will be assessing his performance in those this year.  The rest will come later.  Remember the schools may set their exam dates but learning is a lifelong matter.  We will be continuing past the exams chipping away with the target in sight.  And what’s more we’ll be making plenty of time for entertainment and doing what he likes best too.

At the end of the day life is a series of steps; one at a time!  The key is to enjoy it and know that if a child loses the joy for learning then they will not learn.  Make it fun!  Or at least as fun as possible! And over everything – work with them.

Good luck!

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2 Responses to Motivating The Unmotivated

  1. This is really great information. My older son is moving from the age where he wants to please us to a stage where his friends are gaining importance. Thanks you for the great advice!

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