Does Your Child Lack Motivation?
What it could mean when kids just don't seem to be trying very hard in school
It can happen at any point between kindergarten and high school graduation—and even after that. It’s a common but serious source of worry for parents: You start to notice a lack of motivation and commitment in your child’s attitude towards school.
Maybe he doesn’t seem enthusiastic to learn new things. Maybe he’s not doing his homework. Maybe her grades are dropping. Maybe a fight occurs whenever you try to sit her down to do work.
Whatever the specific problem is, many parents find themselves wondering why a child just doesn’t seem to be trying very hard in school, and how they can help her get motivated.
There are many potential reasons that a child might be turned off by school. Here are some first steps you can take to investigate what might be happening:
- Define your concerns clearly. What are the behaviors that make you think he’s not engaged? A close look at what he’s doing—or not doing—will help you identify what may be happening.
- If he says he’s bored, what does he mean? Many children use the word “bored” to describe how they feel in class, but their definition of “bored” may not match yours. Sometimes kids who are challenged or frustrated aren’t sure what to call the feeling.
- Talk to the teacher. Your child’s teacher is one of the best resources you can use to both help you identify the issues and then find ways to address them. “The teacher can offer six hours of a day worth of information about what the child is doing,” notes Rachel Busman, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
- Clarify your expectations. Get a reality check from the teacher to make sure your expectations are realistic for your kid’s age and developmental level.
- Is it part of the learning process? “There’s a normal amount of trepidation that comes with learning new things,” explains Dr. Busman. “A child who’s learning to read, for instance, may not be ‘motivated’ because it’s new for him and it’s not the easiest thing.” The teacher can let you know if she thinks your child is just going through a rough patch.
- Are there changes at school? It’s common for students to stumble during their first couple months of kindergarten or middle school because these transitions require a lot of adjustment. “A lot of preschool settings are much more social and emotional and not so academic, so it’s a big change to go from being in preschool to kindergarten,” notes Laura Fuhrman, a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Neuropsychologist and former teacher Ken Schuster observes a similar pattern at the beginning of middle school, where kids are expected to be much more independent and organized.
- Has your child changed schools? In the same way, changing schools also may involve some struggling academically as your child adjusts to a new environment.
Are there social factors?
Dr. Fuhrman notes that starting in middle school, kids’ attitudes become subject to a host of new social interactions and pressures. Unfortunately, kids who do well in school sometimes encounter social isolation, and to avoid being labeled as a geek or a nerd they may withdraw from academics.
“In middle school, kids don’t want to be different,” she says, “and they might try to develop an identity that reduces their experience of shame and humiliation in front of their peers.”
While you may have little control over this situation as a parent, the best thing you can do to resist it is to continue fostering a love of learning. Look for opportunities for your child to pursue his interests outside of school and meet other kids who share his interests.
Does your child have a skills deficit?
If you continue to see an unmotivated kid that’s underperforming, it may be because she hasn’t developed the skills she needs to thrive, because of a learning or language disorder, or executive function weaknesses. When a child encounters difficulty, especially if the problem hasn’t been identified, his reaction may be to stop trying in the area that’s frustrating for him.
“We call it a learned helplessness,” Dr. Fuhrman explains. “When they find they’re not meeting the level of success, kids have a tendency to give up, because whatever they’re doing just isn’t working.”
These difficulties may pop up at different times, as each year’s curriculum requires higher levels of skill. Kids with reading disorders like dyslexia may begin to struggle around first grade, when reading becomes important, as well as third grade, when material starts to get more complex. Many executive functioning issues become visible at the beginning of middle school, where students are expected to be a lot more independently organized, both with their work and with their belongings.
As these skills deficits become more and more difficult to hide, students who are embarrassed or frustrated by their struggles often stop trying to conquer them. With help, kids with skills deficits can eventually start to excel in school by learning ways to manage these difficulties and by utilizing school resources that enable them to play to their strengths.
It could really just be boredom
Though it occurs a lot less often than parents suspect, some children are simply not being stimulated enough by their school settings. These may be what experts call “gifted” kids, whose intellectual capabilities are much stronger than most of their peers. These students will often pursue their own academic interests (whether these be reading, writing, math, or science) outside of school and find the curriculum, which is going over what they’ve already learned on their own time, unstimulating.
Another way that giftedness can cause kids to disconnect is when they’re gifted in very specific areas, and they’re so fascinated with those areas that they’d rather think about them during class than pay attention to what their teachers are saying.
But Matthew Cruger, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute who has worked with a lot of gifted children, is skeptical that a child’s lack of motivation can be caused solely by giftedness. “I would expect the most gifted kids to find something compelling about the curriculum,” Dr. Cruger says. If nothing in school piques a child’s interest, the child could be gifted and also have a diagnosis that’s holding her back and undermining motivation.
What other things undermine kids in school?
While learning disorders and other skills deficits are most commonly associated with a lack of interest in school, there are other common diagnoses that manifest in this way.
- ADHD After learning disorders, ADHD is probably the most common cause for kids to fall behind in school. The combination of energy, impatience, impulsivity, and distractibility can make it incredibly difficult for a child with ADHD to function in a typical classroom. “Kids with ADHD may find school particularly challenging because they often miss out on cues and information that’s important for them to do well,” explains Kristin Carothers, a psychologist. “They also may be getting lots of negative attention from teachers because their behavior can be disruptive, and that might result in them being less motivated to perform.”
- Anxiety Separation anxiety might cause a child to be distracted or even refuse to attend school because he’s so worried something might happen when he’s away from his parents. The problem could also be social anxiety, where interacting with her classmates and teachers makes a kid so worried she’d rather skip class than participate in a small work group, or never raise her hand. Kids with generalized anxiety also worry about academics, and may become so stressed about their work being perfect that they just give up because they feel it’s not good enough.
- Depression One of the key symptoms of depression is a reduced interest in activities that once interested a child. If there was once a time when your child did feel stimulated by school, and the newfound disinterest is coupled with other symptoms like irritability or sadness, it’s possible she is suffering from depression.
- OCD In the same way that anxiety can prevent a child from focusing in class, OCD can also become a barrier to his learning. Kids with OCD could be so worried about making a mistake that they feel the need to reread everything or erase and rewrite their homework over and over again until it’s perfect. They may even feel like their desk is contaminated, and spend so much time worrying about it that they’re not aware of what’s going on in class. They might develop obsessions and rituals that can get in the way of their schoolwork and make it seem as if they have very little desire to learn.
It’s a process
If your child has a disorder that is getting in the way of learning, treatment will help him become more engaged and motivated in school.
For kids who don’t need treatment but do need help getting motivated, there are some things parents and teachers can do to help. And keep in mind that some kids will develop motivation as they get older. “Your kid may be at a developmental period where it’s harder to have his own motivation,” says Dr. Carothers, “but that doesn’t mean he won’t be successful in the future.