Tatiana Answers: How can I get my high-schooler to take the initiative to do at least ok in school?

Dear Tatiana,

My high school student often does not do his homework or study for tests. Consequently, his grades are poor. I try to let him take responsibility, but he seems to not care. Should I nag and micromanage his school work, or let him fail? He does better when I get involved and remind him to do his work, but how can I get him to take the initiative to do well (or at least adequately) in school? He does not have any learning issues, nor does he get into trouble at school or at home.


Dear Anonymous,

How do you know he does not have a learning issue? Unless comprehensive testing has been completed, you won’t. Even schools miss unidentified needs more often than not. I just had a client come home from one of the most prestigious colleges in the world as a Senior due to impaired executive functioning (planning, organizing, time management, task completion) that resulted in severe depression. After completing comprehensive testing as part of the treatment plan, the psychologist who tested identified ADHD and Dyslexia. This smart young person had spent their whole life getting by because they were very intelligent, but it came at a cost and eventually could not be sustained. No one knew this young person had to work twice as hard as the next one because they had an invisible disability. I have many, many stories just like this I could share to validate the point.

In 20 years of working with children, I have never met a child who would choose the shame and stress that comes along with poor grades. Even if he presents indifferent about the fact, I promise internally that is not the case. More often than not, adults believe the impairment is a character issue, when really it’s a brain function issue. Here are some of the reasons why children and adults have impaired executive functioning: ADHD, undiagnosed learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, anxiety, depression, Bipolar and trauma.

Micromanagement in response to these challenges will not promote intrinsic motivation. What it will create is a power struggle, stress in your home and a child who may get through high school, but will not have developed the necessary skills to get through college. Ask him what the most challenging parts of school are.  Listen with your heart and really try to understand. If he is sharing things that would indicate a mental health, learning or developmental issue, get him into someone who specializes in that area. In the meantime, ask him if he would like your help with study skills, putting organizational and time management systems into place, breaking down and chunking assignments or learning how to manage his calendar. He may not know how to do those things naturally and may need to be taught. There’s a great book called “The CEO of Self: An Executive Functioning Workbook” by Jan Johnston-Taylor, MA that can help you help him with specific interventions. I’d also e-mail his school counselor and request a sit-down with his teachers, so you can understand what they are observing in class. Make sure he is on their radar. 

If he declines your help, you do have to let the natural consequences occur. The grades will be what the grades are and privileges may be suspended week by week if  he is not meeting his “job requirements.” I like for adolescents to understand clearly what their “job description” is and what their “salary” is. That may sound something like this, “School and chores we assign are your job. When you attend to those things, I can do what I need to do to bring an income into our home and extend trust to you. That income and trust trickles down to you in the form of …(i.e. phone, clothes, spending money, rides, time with friends.) If you are passing all of your classes or if you come to me when you start to struggle, so I can support you in creating a plan to get the help you need, you’ll receive your salary. “ 

I can hear the rumbles now from the parents who believe their children are capable of more than passing. It is better for a child to get a “C” in a class that they managed 100% than a higher grade that was only motivated by the fear they have of their parents. IQ only has a small part to do with success. Work ethic is a greater indicator. Kids learn more about work ethic and grit from their disappointments than their successes. Our job as parents is to ensure different learning, mental health and developmental needs are addressed while allowing our children to experience their successes and failures confident that they are loved unconditionally. 


Tatiana Matthews LPC

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Tatiana Matthews LPC