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Academic Success in High School: Motivating the Unmotivated

Updated: Mar 2

As a former high school counselor, I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with frustrated parents who felt their child was not performing up to their potential. They understood that success in high school would launch their child to post-secondary and then career success and couldn’t understand why their child didn’t assign a similar value to the experience. As a parent of three myself, I can certainly understand what a parent goes through on their end with even the most motivated of students, not to mention those who are not. Here are my takeaways from years of working with this scenario.

Points to consider before expecting academic compliance from a child:

If a student is struggling to keep up in school, I encourage parents to first rule out some form of disability that could be impeding progress. Is it possible the student has ADHD, anxiety, depression, executive function disorder, or one of a variety of learning disabilities? Asking the student's teachers if they've observed anything is a good starting place. And ask the child directly what they are experiencing. Do they have a hard time focusing in class or when doing homework? Are they studying but then forget everything when they get to the test? Take any concerning answers to their pediatrician for advice. For children with a diagnosis, it's important to keep in mind that any of these will affect the learning experience, and parents should look further into how to support their child academically. Explore resources. Would a tutor help? What does the school offer to support students academically?

Remember not every child is equipped to “do school” in the way our society expects. For children that “draw outside the lines,” parents are encouraged to focus on what their child is passionate about and help them use that talent to find some success. Once the child feels successful at something, they often can begin to apply that confidence to more mainstream academic requirements. A great resource for parenting these kids (and all kids) is

Before getting into the various approaches toward “assisting” children with motivation, a note of caution that constant conversation about performance in school can cause damage to the relationship if it becomes an all-consuming argument. If a parent-child relationship revolves around what the child has and (more commonly) hasn't done for school then the parent-child bond is in danger, and the child’s self-esteem and confidence is taking a hit with every argument. Focusing on their positive accomplishments (as infrequent as they may seem to be) will go much further in encouraging positive outcomes.

After considering your child and his or her individual characteristics, below are the approaches that a parent could choose to take with their seemingly unmotivated child:

Approach #1 Practice Positive Study Skills

I would recommend starting by utilizing positive study strategies such as those that are included on my Study Skills page and keeping close involvement with each step to support your child in these efforts, until they are clearly doing these things proactively on their own. If after trying these, there is still a struggle with cooperation, then continue to the next approach.

Approach #2 The Future Plan Motivator

If a student appears to be unmotivated, I like to start with helping them identify their future plans. Once they have some interest in a future career, you can almost always draw the line from a good education to success in just about any field. It may help them to see the reason for the work they are doing now, even if it’s just a hoop to jump through to get them to where they want to be. If a student has no idea what they want to do, then I tell them it's all the more important they do well in high school so that their options will be open once they do decide. High school counselors and college consultants can provide assessments for identifying potential college majors and careers, as well as resources for investigating them further. I also ask my students to project in their mind to their senior year. Don’t let your “senior self” down by not setting him or her up for whatever you (at that point) have decided you want to do. Don’t disappoint him or her due to your lack of effort now.

Approach #3 The Reward System

If what has been discussed thus far hasn’t worked, a parent might choose to offer motivation for good grades in the form of monetary or other rewards. If the student isn’t intrinsically motivated themselves, then outside motivation will sometimes do the trick. Not every parent agrees with doing this, but try to take the big picture view. Is it worth it to have to provide these rewards if the outcome is more academic success, while your child doesn't yet possess internal motivation?

Approach #4 The Punishment System

Some parents implement negative reinforcement which would be the process of removing privileges for lack of progress in school. This could be anything from removing allowance, car, cell phone, video games, etc. This may work, however in my experience students who have really dug in their heels will not let this phase them. So be aware that this may or may not make a difference in grades, and then the student also has no social life or has lost the one thing they look forward to. I always like to keep student mental health in my view as we look at how we are interacting with our children. Is losing their peer support group going to help a child in the big picture? If the result is the child sitting in their room with no social life and still not doing their homework, this approach is not working. Worse, left unchecked, it could spiral into depression.

Approach #5 Transferring Responsibility

This is the most difficult approach for many parents but if all else fails, may be the one that helps to retain a better parent-child relationship. While continuing to voice support for the child’s academic career, tell them that it is on them to do what they need to do. Refrain from constantly asking about doing homework and grades. Let them know you are there if they need anything and willing to help them get back on track, but it is up to them to do what they need to do. Then let the chips fall where they may. Gulp. One of the following will happen:

  • · They’ll have lost their reason to push back and argue, and will begin to take responsibility, with the understanding that it is their life that will be affected by their level of performance.

  • · They'll just get by and graduate with low grades. They can still go to community college, earn a certificate or 2-year degree or transfer to a 4-year institution. The recommendation would be to take one or two classes at first and go from there.

  • · They do not earn enough credit to graduate. This sounds devastating I know. And honestly it probably won’t happen. But if it did, there are programs in every community that will help adults go back and get their credits when they are ready, and there’s always the GED. Once they have one of these, they can start their college career at a community college and progress from there. And of course, they can also take their GED/diploma, get a job and work their way up, without a college education. A multitude of people have done just that resulting in successful careers. IT. WILL. BE. OK.

We all have grand plans for our children and do what we can to provide them with opportunities to be successful, but they are independent beings who will do things their own way, on their own timeline. A child is more than their academic achievement. Maintaining a trusting and supportive relationship will go far in helping them as they work through who they are and what they are capable of. And during those moments of frustration remember this: Willfulness and independence can be strong predictors of success. Once your child has a passion or goal, they may become the most successful of any of us.


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