Dear Dr. Debbie,
Last school year we moved from another state mid-year and our sixth grader found himself behind in some subjects and bored in others. School had been easy and fun for him before. His struggles as well as our own adjustments to new jobs and a new community made life stressful for several months. There were times his grades were so poor he was at risk of not passing for the year.
My husband and I finally hit on a goal-setting strategy with him, setting reasonable expectations for each assignment and test, and setting time to help him with homework. The rewards were different each time — going to the movies or go-kart track, a meal at a restaurant or money toward the expensive sneakers he’s saving up for.
What can we do to be sure the new school year is less of a struggle than last year?
Dreading Summer’s End
Don’t miss last week’s column It’s time to hire a teenage babysitter — Good Parenting
Maintaining student motivation is a complex undertaking involving a mix of factors including interest in the subject matter, aptitude for the skills required, timely and relevant parent involvement, social/emotional well being, teacher personalities as well as a good match between teaching techniques and learning styles.
Your family’s mid-year move may be the complete explanation for last year’s troubles. A sag in academic performance can be expected as the student adjusts to new teachers. Barring another family disruption, the worst may be over.
Nonetheless, here are a few suggestions to keep your student enthusiastically engaged in his education.
Most rising seventh graders remain in the same school so he already knows the building, some of the students and personnel, and the general atmosphere. Even so, if his school offers a new student orientation before the first day, he should attend. There may be tours of the media center, information about online homework help, presentations about after school activities and other tidbits that could prove useful. Just checking out the clothes on the other students — to see what is popular –— is good information for blending in or standing out, as he prefers. Call to see if the school provides an orientation, and if so when it is scheduled.
You didn’t mention whether he’s made new friends yet. Friends are important at any age, especially at the verge of adolescence. A friend is someone who knows you and helps you get to know yourself. A friend can make a hard time more bearable, and a good time a shared memory.
If you have at least one friend at school, that’s a motivation to take with you each morning.
Encourage him to ask over a friend from school — to go fishing, stay up to watch the Perseid meteor shower (which peaks Aug. 12) or hunt down some Pokémon together. This friend can become a study buddy, or someone to call to clear up confusion on a school assignment or just to gripe to. If they’re both confused, then the problem may lie with the text or the teacher, not the students.
If your son didn’t get around to making any friends at school or in the neighborhood, sign up for a class, club or workshop. There are plenty to choose from. Anne Arundel Community College runs half-day, one-week classes through Aug. 12. Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks offers weekly sessions for a range of age groups. This area has a preponderance of out-of-school options for children in the summer from martial arts, to tennis, to history, to sailing, and many are offered year-round. Even if camp sessions are full or over by the time he gets back, you can start shopping around for a potential after school activity with schoolmate.
A hobby, sport, art or service club will anchor his week with something that will assure him of success and give him something to look forward to, especially at times when school is a bother. Extracurricular activities could also contribute directly to knowledge and skills needed to succeed at school. Either way, feeling good about yourself is a key ingredient for rising to challenges at school.
Your family found positive results from one-on-one support for getting homework done. Make a routine of checking what his assignments are as long as you feel he needs this support. This can make a big difference.
Many children need help with managing their time for homework, especially for test preparation and long-term assignments. Even in college, some students do better with outside help to manage their study time.
The trips and treats for good grades should taper off as they’re no longer needed. An engaged young scholar soon realizes the inherent excitement of discovery, the joy of mastery and the satisfaction of a job well done. You don’t want to be “paying” him the rest of his school years. Acknowledge a hard won grade or a stellar project, but keep the focus on his perseverance, creativity, powerful word choice, etc. You want him to see triumph as the outcome of his efforts, rather than a chore requiring compensation from you. The tangible rewards you provided in the past helped him move forward from failure, however, he should be learning to reward himself with pride. This is a good lesson for life. Hard work deserves a cheer and not necessarily a prize.
A not-so-great grade, on the other hand, warrants attention, too. Sometimes, as happened for your family last year, parents need to swoop in to remedy a blip in academic achievement. You might add professional expertise to the toolkit. A good teacher welcomes communication with parents, especially when they’re asking for insight, clarification or other help for motivation and performance. You can hire or find volunteer tutors for specific subjects — perhaps a neighbor who had the same class a year or two ago. The school guidance counselor is another resource who can focus on obstacles to success and solutions, such as helping your son understand the connection between school and the future of his choosing.
As a side note, consider that a lapse in motivation might suggest an issue with hearing or vision that has yet to be diagnosed. Allergies of all sorts can also arise at any time in life, disrupting motivation with fatigue, headaches or other distractions.
Motivation is integral to a student’s success. Sometimes outside forces can jump-start the powerful forces within.
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 drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com