Motivating Unmotivated Students

There is no typical profile of underachievers and unmotivated students - students without identifiable physical or learning disabilities whose academic performance is significantly lower than their intelligence level. An underachiever can be a student who scrapes by with passing marks, gets an "A" on one exam and then flunks another, has good grades that suddenly drop, or consistently fails to fulfill his or her potential.

Most children have difficulty from time to time, but there's reason for concern if a problem consistently presents itself - such as repeated failure on tests, lack of interest in school or frequently producing sloppy work. When that occurs, you should consider having your child tested to determine his overall intellectual functioning level and to eliminate the possibility of a learning disability that could be affecting his achievement. Such tests are available through many schools. You also can request educational tests on speech, language and visual-motor skills, as well as tests that compare achievement levels to aptitude. But, keep in mind, these tests are only one estimate of a child's potential.

Finding the Causes
To understand the underachiever, watch for patterns of behavior such as:

  • Fear of failing - Some underachievers are actually perfectionists who feel their worth is determined by what they produce, not by who they are.
  • Sibling rivalry - Children who feel they should achieve at the same level as an older or younger sibling may react by not trying in school.
  • Power play - These children use non-compliance to get back at parents whose expectations are too high.
  • The late bloomer - Some children take a long time to decide that doing well in school is something they want to do for themselves and not just for their teachers and parents.
    Sometimes students are unmotivated because they're bored in school, or they feel that they cannot compete in the classroom with high-achievers. And many children do better in smaller classes, where teachers can provide one-on-one instruction. Other causes for lack of motivation may include a family crisis, such as death or divorce. Usually, children are underachievers for more than one reason.

Working with Schools
Communication and cooperation between parents and schools are essential to resolve motivational problems.

  • Meet with your child's teachers and guidance counselor to learn about his or her behavior in class and to find out whether assignments are turned in.
  • A conference once a month or a weekly note from the teacher about your child's progress may be necessary.
  • A behavior program focusing on one problem, such as making sure that a student's homework is turned in on time, may also help the underachiever.

Helping Children Realize Their Potential
Some parents, and even businesses, offer money or other incentives in an effort to motivate children's school performance. Incentives of any kind, whether they are rewards for good grades or punishment for poor performance, work only in the short run. Experts say the single most important factor in academic achievement may be parental influence, which can take the form of:

  • belief in your child's abilities;
  • frequent and open communication with your child;
  • parenting techniques that are neither overly permissive nor authoritarian;
  • respecting and listening to your child's concerns and
  • giving a clear message that doing well in school is important without nagging children if they do poorly.

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