Helping an unmotivated high school student — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

Do you agree with me that college is not for everyone? Our son has always struggled academically, is shy and less mature than his peers. While his older sisters went the college route, and are moving ahead toward professions of their choosing, this high school junior isn’t even motivated to graduate from high school. He doesn’t have any career aspirations, nor has he ever had a job other than occasional dog walking for the neighbor. His grades are inconsistent, and it’s like pulling teeth to get him to get his assignments completed — and that’s just the ones we know about. We’ve started communicating directly with his teachers to make certain we know what the assignments are, because missing homework has been an issue this school year.

My husband and I are not in agreement about what future we’re helping our son to prepare for. I can see him living at home after high school, getting as interesting a job as he is qualified for, and having some household responsibilities including rent. The community college is nearby, relatively inexpensive, and can be a one-course-at-a-time deal while he figures out what he wants to learn about. Dad sees four-year college as the only option largely because that’s what he did and that’s what our two daughters did.

I just can’t see that happening for this boy.

Charting an Unknown Course

Don’t miss last week’s column Teaching kids compassion — Good Parenting

Dear Charting,

Yes, I would agree that your son is clearly not ready to use college on a career path. With high school completion still presenting its challenges, it’s probably tough for him to see a future beyond that — especially one with several more years of school in it.

With closer communication with his teachers, active involvement of his school guidance counselor and possibly a private counselor, the three of you need to work out a plan for successful completion of high school. A learning disability, mental health issue, medical issue (fatigue has many causes and can look like depression or shyness), or a combination of factors could be at the root of his struggles with school. Plan for and work toward the not too distant goal of high school graduation since that widens options for the life that comes after — as compared to the limited options that typically follow dropping out or flunking out.

Make an appointment for the three of you to meet with your son’s guidance counselor, then if the school has one, the college/career counselor. Part of the discussion can include the options of “on-time” graduation, summer school, an additional school year, or combining high school and community college enrollment to assure his completion.

When looking beyond high school, Anne Arundel County Public Schools has a webpage devoted to college and career planning with links, by school, to an awesome program called Naviance. Just type in your interests and it will tell you which careers you might like and what you need to get into that career. It also guides you with admission requirements for specific colleges and universities, plus information for getting all kinds of financial aid.

Before closing the door to college as the path for your son right after high school, your family should consider the services of a college consultant, a trained and certified individual who custom designs the college application process for each student. Not only are colleges big and small, urban and rural, near and far, they should also be well-suited to personal factors. A local college consultant, Cori Dykman, uses the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator to help your child get to know himself. She says, “We discuss how to build on the strengths and address possible weaknesses. I inspire many students to try new experiences that interest them, to push and challenge themselves by doing something new in the community.” Dykman’s website offers a link to exploring many options and resources in planning for college.

Your best course of action at present is to support your son’s ability to see himself as successful — both through helping him overcome hurdles to completing high school and through helping him to clarify what his best course of action is after that. If you don’t know what your options are, you can’t choose them.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]