Below we have outlined the most common obstacles we’ve encountered in our over 40 years of working with children and teens who are struggling. The first obstacles are what we call “The Three ‘Tions’” (pronounced “shuns”).
Research has shown that motivation comes from within. As a result, when students are truly resistant to something, pushing them doesn’t accomplish anything. The old adage is true—you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
Let’s face it. Kids know when they’re struggling and like adults, they avoid doing things that are hard or that they don’t understand. So what can you do to influence motivation? You better than anyone know what interests your child, what gives him trouble, where her talents and challenges lie. Focus on what your child can do more than what he can’t yet. Use games that require your child to demonstrate knowledge of the facts and skills they need in order to “win.” Visit the store…there is a host of card games, “lotto”-style games, activities and books, focused on everything from basic math skills to phonics to creative writing.
In the end, the greatest motivator for academic achievement is success, which improves self-confidence and perpetuates itself. Learning happens naturally when children are having fun, and they often don’t even know they’re learning. As one of our young tutoring clients once said, “All of a sudden, I know how to read. I don’t know how it happened, but it did.”
Obstacle 2: DisorganizaTION
None of us is born with the ability to organize—we learn by watching others. The best way you can help children become organized is by 1) modeling being organized yourself and 2) involving them in designing a system for organizing schoolwork that works best for them. We gave one child we worked with a red, three-ring, loose-leaf notebook with dividers. In addition to subject names, we created a section for time management sheets and other items that he’d eventually need. Then, we gave him an assignment book and, together, we proceeded to put together a plan of attack.
This may seem simple but it is missing from the lives of many children. I often see children who are overwhelmed by the amount of schoolwork they have to do and have difficulty organizing their papers and assignments. With struggling students, many tasks take longer than anticipated and their agenda becomes more about finding out how quickly they can do their work so they can move on to more fun stuff. Show them how knowing how to organize increases the chance that they can complete their assignments and still have time to pursue outside hobbies and activities without becoming overwhelmed.
Even older students who understand short-term goal-setting don’t always have the skills to prioritize those goals. They may need help to evaluate which activities are more important, which assignments should be done first, which can be put off for later, etc. Talk through the benefits or negatives of each. Talk about which subjects or activities are more important to their success. Give them choices and let them learn from the choices they make.
For younger students, adapt to them. Based on what you know about your child’s patterns of alertness, determine which subjects to tackle first. For example, if a student’s handwriting deteriorates as she gets tired, suggest that you work on English assignments first and do tasks that require less handwriting later in the day.
Recommend that your child gather all school-related notes, handouts and papers they collect and keep them all in one place—in one notebook, one folder, or one section of a folder with multiple pockets. Show them that when it’s time to review, they can easily go to the appropriate location and find what they need to study. Once again, we’re not born knowing how to create complex systems. Help your child develop a system that works for him or her.
Time management skills are beneficial for all students—and adults, too. When students use time wisely, they can study more efficiently and, in turn, learn more in less time.
- Be a good role model. If you’re organized, your child will have someone to emulate. (If you have difficulty with organization, buy some books or go on line to find strategies dealing with how to get organized yourself! Remember, follow your own rules…)
- Buy a quality three-hole punch.
- Be sure your child has and uses an assignment book or other calendar.
- Help your child devise lists and schedules that work for him or her.
- Having and using a time management grid or calendar allows students to see, at a glance, what assignments, projects and/or exams are upcoming in any given week or month. With our students, we use charts and grids. Download a free copy of the Time Management Grid we use with the kids we work with. Feel free to adapt it for your particular circumstances.
Obstacle 3: ProcrastinaTION
Children who suffer from the third “Tion” really do intend to study and do their homework. They’re motivated to get good grades. They may even be organized. And though they truly believe they will do an assignment, somehow, the assignments rarely get done.
Get procrastinators moving by starting their homework during the time set aside for school. If they need to write an essay, help them with the first few sentences. If they have difficulty getting started with math or science problems, do the first few with them. Often, once they get started, they will continue because they’re on a roll. Sometimes they just need a nudge, and when they discover how good it feels to get things out of the way, they’ll soon choose to do it themselves. (See “Establishing priorities” above.)