by Doris Wild Helmering, LCSW., BCD
By now everyone has not only heard the definition of insanity, but has been found repeating it. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.” Unfortunately when it comes to a rather unmotivated student doing poorly in school year after year, such wisdom is rarely remembered.
At the beginning of the school year, parents frequently extract a promise that this year their child will work harder and get better grades. Followed by the student making a genuine promise to do just that. By mid-October things aren’t looking to good, and by time grades are out, it’s same old, same old.
Now comes the next familiar refrain: “You’re never going to amount to anything. If you don’t get it together, you’ll be living in your car or worse, in our basement. Taking his clue, the student counters that his teachers can’t teach or they’re unfair in their grading. After laying out his defense, there comes a further well-meaning promise that he will do better. An assurance that most parents want to buy into, but shouldn’t.
So parents, how about a different approach in order to help your kid have a better school year? A lot of work is ahead of you, make no mistake, but by next semester I promise even the most unmotivated kid can get motivated around schoolwork. I see it all the time in my family practice.
Start by setting up a schedule. Tough for parents, but what’s the goal? Helping your kid get motivated about school. Set a time each day when you’ll sit down with your child while he works on his homework. Your job as parent is to watch your child work—one word at a time, one problem at a time, one page at a time.
If she lays her head on the table and says, “I can’t do this,” ask, “How can I help?” No lectures, however, and no getting irritated or losing your cool. Do be braced for some frustrating times with whining and little temper tantrums along the way. Be determined to sit quietly and offer words of encouragement to your frustrated child. You might say, “You can do it. Remember, one word at a time. . . .” The first month using this routine will be the hardest both for you and your child. But once the routine and expectations are established, it will take about six weeks; everyone will get into the swing of it.
If after a few weeks you discover that your kid is more interested in science than math, come up with a science project that you and she might do on the weekend. I’ve had kids raise worms for fun and then sell them to gardeners. The trick: watch, listen and discover a child’s interest and connect his interest with schoolwork. Remember how the Harry Potter books got kids reading?
Most schools give reading assignments throughout the year. Try to connect your child’s interest with various books that would appeal to him. If he hates reading, have your son read out loud to you and then you to him: one paragraph and then another and another. Exposure is the name of the game when it comes to learning.
Parents often ask: What about bribes to encourage a kid to do better in school? Yes and no. If the reward is immediate, such as we’ll play cards or shoot a few baskets after homework, fine. But no long-term goals because a kid who has trouble with short-term goals of studying for a test or getting his homework done for the next day doesn’t have the sustaining power to work toward long term goals. Remember, it’s one word and then the next, one problem and then the next, right down the page. Parent should keep repeating this sentence, somewhat like a mantra, and your child will find herself saying it.
If as a parent you can’t sit with your child because of scheduling problems, get help from a grandparent, a neighbor or a high school kid. Three months into the process and your child’s stick-to-it-ness, self-esteem and grades will improve. A small price to pay for a big reward!
Doris Wild Helmering is a clinical social worker, nationally known author, television and radio personality, has appeared on Oprah three times, and has written eight self-help books, numerous booklets, and a weekly syndicated newspaper column for twenty-four years. Her most recent books are The Boy Whose Idea Could Feed the World and The Parent Teacher Discussion Guide. She is in private practice where she does marriage and family therapy as well as counseling parents and kids. She has served as a consultant to a number of Fortune 500 companies as well as several school districts.
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