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Underachievement: How to Motivate Kids - Dr. Charles Fay


Part 2: Underachievement: Building a Foundation of Success

Part 3: Underachievement: Inspiring High Achievement

Has anyone ever said to you, "Just try it, it's easy!" only to find out the task they coaxed you into trying was painfully difficult? Did this leave you feeling exceptionally capable or downright stupid… and embarrassed?

When this happens to the average adult, it doesn't take long for them to conclude two things:

  1. This person who's trying to help me is nuts… and definitely not to be trusted!
  2. Why should I try if I can't even handle the easy stuff?

Quite frequently I overhear well-meaning parents and educators using the "Just try it, it's easy!" approach in an attempt to urge a reluctant child into trying something they're afraid of. When the child finds the task easy, all is right with the world. When they don't, they're confronted with the pain of seeing that they might be so incapable they can't even do something really, really "easy"!

How often does this need to happen before our kids lose faith in our word? How often does this have to happen before our children lose faith in their own abilities? Are you willing to take this sort of risk with your kids?

Helping unmotivated kids is one of the most complex challenges we face as educators and parents. Giving a quick and easy solution can be impossible… and downright irresponsible.

In approximately 99% of cases, the child's lack of motivation to try results from far more than simple laziness or a conscious desire to act out. The roots of apathy go far deeper, into feelings of frustration, anger, hopelessness, lack of control, or loss. The majority of these feelings lay at the subconscious level, where they wreak havoc on a child's ability to engage in higher-level thinking tasks, such as sustained attention to detail, problem-solving, memory, perseverance, and self-control.

This is why punishing children for getting bad grades usually backfires. Since they are already feeling bad about life, how is making them feel worse about it going to get them motivated to succeed?

What Can We Do?

In my book, From Bad Grades to a Great Life!, I teach a variety of alternative strategies for getting at the roots of apathy… rather than making it worse with anger, lectures, threats and punishments. At the core of what we teach is the importance of loving kids for who they are… rather than who we want them to be. Yes! The healing process begins when we end the power struggle by saying, "We will love you no matter how well or poorly you do in school. Your grades are your grades… not ours. That's why we are no longer going to fight with you about them. Just let us know how we can help."

One of the alternate strategies is to experiment with asking your child the following:

A lot of kids find this kind of challenging.

Would you try this and let me know what you think?

If you hear, "It's too hard. I can't do it," smile, pat them on the back and ask:

Aren't you glad that I don't believe that?

"Aren't you glad that I don't believe that?" represents an exceptionally powerful way of communicating to your children that they have what it takes to succeed. Delivered in question format, its effectiveness becomes supercharged. Remember: Questions create thinking. Statements create resistance.

 You may also experiment with asking another question:

And… aren't you glad that I'm going to love you the same

even if you have to work really hard to figure this out?

Kids are Born to Learn

In my seminars I'm often asked, "How do we motivate our kids to want to learn?" My response is always the same:

All children are born with a strong drive to explore, learn

and master their environment.

The key to helping underachieving kids is not punishment! It doesn't involve finding bigger and better consequences… or better rewards.

Lack of academic motivation is usually the result of unmet needs related to

control, competence, emotional safety, belonging, etc.

Demonstrating a sincere desire to help, and not to punish, is the first step along the road to recovery. The next steps involve rebuilding the foundation of emotional needs that free kids to learn.

In the second part of this blog series, I will describe practical and proven strategies designed to give parents the tools for rebuilding this foundation.

Part 2: Underachievement: Building a Foundation of Success

Part 3: Underachievement: Inspiring High Achievement

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