Motivation: Recapturing the Joy of Learning

bio_MMcleodMolly Isaacs-McLeod

I frequently field concerns expressed by parents of gifted children and teens regarding motivation and underachievement. There are common threads in the many stories I have heard. At one time their child was fully engaged, joyous, and nearly insatiable about learning. Over time they notice that the child is less excited to learn. The child who at one time made weekly trips to the library to check out “literally every book” about one topic and then another seemingly loses interest. Eventually the child, or teen, is doing the minimum to get by; sometimes the minimum is a good day!

For some, this phenomenon seems to crop up shortly after the transition to middle school. I have had parents say their heretofore curious, straight-A student came home and announced that he is “not smart anymore.” From there, the student seems to give up. Often what has happened is that after years of exposure to spiraling curriculum, the student has tuned out, having grasped the content the first time she saw it. Middle school presents not only more challenging content, but the demand for organizational and study skills. If the student has not had to study and has not needed to develop time management and other organizational skills, it is easy to see how the student might feel “less smart” and overwhelmed.

As high school begins and college nears parents become very concerned. What will this mean for college acceptance? What opportunities will be missed if students are not “giving their all?” What about post-baccalaureate opportunities and career options? Will she ever be able to move away and have a self-supported life of her own? It is easy for parental anxiety to spiral.

So what is a parent to do? How can the parent support the child, offer appropriate guidance and structure, while not compromising the relationship? While there is no “sure fire” approach (you probably already knew that!), there are strategies that can work. You, as the parent and as the person who knows your child and your family best, are the one best suited to sort through ideas and determine what is most appropriate.

Consider environmental factors:

  • Health (lack of sleep, nutrition, substance abuse, latent learning disability).

  • Family stress (expectation levels, move, divorce, chemical dependency of a family member).

  • Relationships (dumbing down to fit in, parental modeling of hard work, zest for learning, mutual respect between parents and child/teen).

  • School (lack of challenge and opportunity to work at appropriate level).

For more detailed discussion, please see A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, Webb et al, p. 58.

If a review of these considerations does not point to there being an issue that might dampen motivation, you might look at the situation from the perspective of your child. What is important to her? What is her current area of interest? You may have to look outside school subjects to find an area of passion. When possible, even if it is a stretch, try to transfer the level of passion and interest your child has in one area to the ones for which she is less enthusiastic. Try to link the interest to the desired behavior in some way. Depending on the student’s school setting, you can sometimes successfully enlist the aid of a teacher.

Some additional things to consider:

  • Build a healthy and supportive relationship. Often, by the time the spiral of underachievement begins, parents are at odds with their children. Put the relationship first. Begin by modeling respect and caring. If you can’t remember the last time you and your child did something for fun together, wholly unrelated to academics or performance, make sure you arrange an enjoyable activity.

  • Consider how you would want to be treated in a similar situation. If you were struggling at work would you prefer a supervisor who offered specific constructive criticism with support and guidance in resolving the issue, or one who berated you for your shortcomings with no offer of a path for improvement?

  • Discuss the issue with your child at a time when the discussion is not a prompt for completing an assignment or a response to poor performance.

  • Educate yourself about the role that giftedness plays in underachievement and lack of motivation. Share with your child that these issues are not uncommon, that she is still capable, and that you are there to support her through rediscovering her interests.

  • Consider enlisting the aid of a college and career counselor. Sometimes a third party can be heard in a way that a parent simply cannot be by a child, especially an older one.

  • If you have a sense of what might be interesting to your child, try to arrange for a mentoring relationship with someone who works in that field. This could involve anything from an informational interview to an internship.

  • Acknowledge the successes. Parents of gifted children tend to focus on the lowest grade, much like the children themselves. You may need to provide a reality check for your child by reflecting the facts of the situation back to her.

  • If you have experienced a period of “being stuck,” not being sure what you wanted to do, or being challenged (in school or work) and not knowing how to move forward, share that experience with your child. If someone close to your child (family friend, godparent, etc.) has gone through something similar, ask that person to intervene.

It is crucial to be patient, not only with your child, but also with yourself! As adults, with some experience of the world, we know the pitfalls of not working hard or making the grade. We have appreciation of the long-term consequences of decisions made (actively or by default) at this crucial time.

By putting the relationship first you are letting your child know that she, as an individual, is what is important to you. You are saying you love and support her no matter what. Does this mean you disregard the need for guidance in the academic and career area? Absolutely not, as that is part of the parenting role. However, your child will be far more receptive to your suggestions and offers of assistance if she knows that you love and support her, unconditionally.

For more information on this topic, please visit the SENG website, where you can search our database of articles and other resources by topic. You might also consider finding a SENG Model Parent Group (SMPG) near you or sign on for SENG Online Parent Support Groups (SOPS), where we discuss these issues.

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