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50% of students are below average, right?
October 17, 2012 2:58 PM   Subscribe

What approaches might be effective for motivating an underachieving U.S. high school student?

My son has been underperforming all through high school -- he gets Bs, Cs and Ds, and AFAICT it's because he does what he estimates to be the bare minimum, and his estimation skills are poor. I don't believe I'm nagging him: I ask once in a while if everything is going ok and if he needs help with some class, and very rarely he'll have a question, but it's always clear (to me, anyway) that he has waited until well past the time when he could possibly learn whatever he's asking about, or complete the assignment he's asking me to look over.

I don't believe he's stupid; he's just exceedingly lazy, and can't be arsed to do the work. And that wouldn't bother me either, if he was doing something else with his time, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

I have no idea what to do about this: I'd have been mortified to get grades like his, or to show up for class as ill-prepared as he is. (I still remember the one time I got caught out in high school: biology, and I didn't know all the features of a femur that I should have. But what I did was learn the rest of the bones so thoroughly that I still remember most of them, 33 years later. My kid appears to think "meh, I'll do better next time," but then makes the exact same underestimate of effort required.)

I don't have any particular respect for good grades per se, except to the modest degree they may be indicative of effort expended and hoop-jumping competence acquired, but I believe he'll face plenty of hardships on account of his poor grades.

So, parents of MeFi, have you been able to convince your teen that it's worth doing the best job you can, even if you're not particularly interested in the subject? And mediocre-grade-getters of MeFi, is there anything you wish you had known, or that someone had said, before you got the last of your lackluster report cards? (Are poor grades really not that big a hindrance? All I really want is for my kid to be able to make it on his own, and not have a miserable time of it.)

Throwaway email:
calc.was.a.bad.choice@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Education (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was a mediocre-grade-getter (I would have been an abysmal-grade-getter except I was reasonably attentive in class and I test quite well.) I was never convinced that grades were important, and I was much more interested in reading and playing video games.

Nearly fifteen years after graduation, I have had a very successful career in large part due to that experience playing video games, and a novel that might someday be salable in the genre I was reading back then. (All while my now-post-doc friends are scraping for work if they're working at all.) And I am still unconvinced that grades matter. So... there's one datapoint for you.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:06 PM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


And mediocre-grade-getters of MeFi, is there anything you wish you had known, or that someone had said, before you got the last of your lackluster report cards?

"You're not lazy and absentminded, you have ADHD."
posted by griphus at 3:07 PM on October 17, 2012 [14 favorites]


Are poor grades really not that big a hindrance?

Poor grades, in and of themselves, are not a hinderance, but approaching everything in life with an attitude of "meh, I'll do better next time" and a desire to do the bare minimum will be unhelpful in life.

I don't know what it was. At one point my father, not even intending to motivate me to stop being such a slacker, said to me off-handedly, "There is really no point to being mediocre." And after hearing that, it was like a lightbulb went off.

I don't have any particular respect for good grades per se

It's entirely possibly that he picked up on this from you and reacts accordingly. When you are a teenager, you may have very little understanding of the long term rewards/consequences of grades and cannot yet get an abstract understanding of how they indicate "effort expended and hoop-jumping competence acquired." It's like in the movie The Karate Kid how Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel to master "Wax on, Wax Off", "Up and Down", and "Side to Side". Waxing cars and painting fences was not the point. The point was a larger lesson and set of skills, but at the beginning stages, you might not be able to understand that, so you concentrate on the basics.
posted by deanc at 3:20 PM on October 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't have any particular respect for good grades per se...
So why should he?
posted by txmon at 3:22 PM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


One approach would be to read him the riot act, i.e., give him a sharp verbal kick in the ass. Sometimes kids need a harsh dose of reality because they have been coddled to some extent by virtue of being children and they just don't understand yet that life can be tough and they will not be taken care of by others forever. Giving him a wake up to reality would potentially be doing him a great favor even if it feels harsh. Not even necessarily you have to have great grades, but you have to be productive, you have to do something, you have to make effort. Of course that's only if it's a "lazy" situation. There may be other issues for which such an approach would be totally counter-productive.
posted by Dansaman at 3:27 PM on October 17, 2012


I kind of wish that when I was a bright but somewhat underachieving high schooler someone had taught me how to study and how to learn things that weren't intuitive on the first try. For me, something like requiring me to meet with a teacher for extra help twice a week or having to do my homework with a tutor each afternoon would have been effective.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:29 PM on October 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Listen, there will always be people who got mediocre grades who are now successful. But that's the exception, not the rule. I would find the laziness particularly troublesome.

I am not a parent. But I was a kid. And my parents' attitude about this was always crystal clear: school is your job. If you are getting terrible grades, you are not doing your job. If I don't do my job there are consequences, and the same goes for you.

I think that means you have to be rigid about this. Yes, it's tough to force a teen to study, but maybe if they don't do their homework, they don't get to go out with their friends or play video games. I do believe that clear expectations can go a long way.

I think Snarl is right on point with the extra help. Most schools can recommend good tutors in the area. Set up a weekly meeting schedule and help him adhere. I would also reach out to teachers to see if they have any particular insight on what's behind the middling grades. Also, if you keep in touch with teachers, you'll know that he has a test in two weeks, or a project coming up. Yes, perhaps a little much for a parent of a high schooler, but better late than never.
posted by murfed13 at 3:40 PM on October 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


So, parents of MeFi, have you been able to convince your teen that it's worth doing the best job you can, even if you're not particularly interested in the subject? And mediocre-grade-getters of MeFi, is there anything you wish you had known, or that someone had said, before you got the last of your lackluster report cards?

I was a pronounced underachiever. Later in my high school career, it was how rebelled. Other kids smoked or did drugs, I did no homework and aced tests anyway.

I was sort of a troubled kid, so I don't know how much my experience will help you - except let me say that there is far more to life than good grades in high school. I went on to make a real mess of my early adulthood and still managed to get a career in IT and a degree in electrical engineering. And now I find myself behind the wheel of a large automobile, with a beautiful house, and a beautiful wife. and I think to myself, well, how did I get here?

Point is, I'm doing way better now than most of the kids I graduated with who had much better GPAs than me.

Now my son was far less troubled than I. He was just content to do the bare minimum. He doesn't much care for school and motivating him to do more than the minimum was a constant battle.

But here's the thing. Even when I was rebelling, I was playing videogames and teaching myself how to program computers and writing games and such. I had passions and ideas and stuff, they just didn't translate well to school. The same with my son - he'd rather spend all day taking pictures than sit in class.

So - is your son passionate and interested in that thing ? Encourage him in that. Graduating from high school is important, but more important is that he learns to find and develop the things that he likes to do and is good at.

I think if you refocus away from the academics and onto other skills and talents, you and your son will be a lot happier.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:43 PM on October 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm kind of like Pogo in the bored highschooler, successful adult kind of way. I found school to be SO mindnumbing, pointless and ridiculous that I never bothered to do half the crap they wanted me to do, like attend. I've always been an avid independent reader and learner and could find engaging material on the topics that interested me.

One thing I did miss out on is study skills (not that they teach those anyway), but I was a bit hampered having to logically lay out much more challenging info when I went to university. My fly by the seat of my pants approach did not work there, until I figured out smart ways to learn the ginormous amounts of stuff that were required of me.

Basically try and figure out the core root of the lazyness. Too smart and bored by school? Passions lie elsewhere? Is there any hobbies/sports/activities he's driven by? Try and separate valuable life skills from school and foster them elsewhere. Basically, what Pogo said.
posted by tatiana131 at 4:02 PM on October 17, 2012


I was a bad-grades-getter, to the point that my high school graduation was delayed while I repeated algebra ii in summer school. I tested great, but if homework, paying attention in class, or participation were part of the grade, I was screwed.

It turned out, in retrospect, that I'm bipolar and have ADD--had I been receiving appropriate treatment at the time, it's possible, though not certain, that things might have been different for me--I was really, really unhappy. I was also smart enough that I could ace tests without paying attention or doing the work, and was aware that no one cared if I knew what I was being taught, they only cared if I jumped through the hoops and busywork that they were throwing at me.

With that said, my shitty grades in high school haven't really hindered me. I was accepted to colleges--colleges, plural!--when I decided to try to go to college a year or two after I left high school. I even ended up with some huge scholarships--testing well comes in handy, apparently.

Turns out that I wasn't wild about college, either, but I still ended up with a career-type job, and I'm a relatively happy and reasonably successful adult. Almost any issues that linger from high school are more about how unhappy I was than anything else--I was pretty insecure, and people lecturing me and badgering me about how I could do so well, if only I'd apply myself...that sort of thing has stuck with me far more than my shitty grades did. My self-worth took a real beating, and I still struggle with that, fifteen-plus years later.

Obviously this isn't what it's like for every kid, but if your child doesn't actually seem unhappy with their level of achievement, it's worth considering embracing that and helping them find other avenues in which they can achieve.
posted by MeghanC at 4:12 PM on October 17, 2012


I was pretty insecure, and people lecturing me and badgering me about how I could do so well, if only I'd apply myself...that sort of thing has stuck with me far more than my shitty grades did.

I just want to reiterate that, because while my damage took the form of a lot of fuck-you-make-me, it took me a long time to even start to get a grip on the "I'll never do it as well as I should, so I just won't do it at all" mindset that years and years and YEARS of being told about my "potential" put me into.

If anyone had ever *asked* me what I wanted, it would have been pretty obvious that I wasn't notably lazy or unmotivated, my motivations just had nothing to do with my GPA or most of the Mickey Mouse crap classes that I had to take. And maybe I could have gotten some help learning stuff I actually cared about, in a way that made sense to me. But, you know, American public schools - what can you do?
posted by restless_nomad at 4:22 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't believe I'm nagging him: I ask once in a while if everything is going ok and if he needs help with some class, and very rarely he'll have a question, but it's always clear (to me, anyway) that he has waited until well past the time when he could possibly learn whatever he's asking about, or complete the assignment he's asking me to look over.

One more thing. You're his mom. Asking him about school is definitely not nagging.
posted by murfed13 at 4:29 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Have you talked to him about this at all? It doesn't sound like you're angry, or even especially frustrated, so it seems like you're actually in the ideal frame of mind to have a productive conversation.

You could ask him why he thinks he gets the grades he does, whether he's happy with them, what he's spending his time on (I know it seems like nothing to you, but presumably he's doing something, whether or not it's something you think is worthwhile).

Find out how he feels about his grades, what he thinks he might like to do after high school, what he thinks would help him move toward whatever goals he may have.

If you can approach it from a position of just trying to understand what he's experiencing and what he wants/needs, then you'll have a better grasp on what you could do to help him -- e.g., maybe you'll find out that he's pursuing something else and you can encourage him in that, or maybe he's having trouble following the material and you can get him a tutor or a psych evaluation. If you find out that he's "just lazy" maybe you can find an appropriate way to motivate him (you could even ask him what would motivate him to get better grades and make a deal). But it seems like right now you don't really know the whole story, and I think you need to know that first.
posted by emumimic at 4:35 PM on October 17, 2012


I don't have any particular respect for good grades per se, except to the modest degree they may be indicative of effort expended and hoop-jumping competence acquired, but I believe he'll face plenty of hardships on account of his poor grades.

Tell him you want him to improve his grades. I tell my kids I want them to get As and they get mostly As. Have an expectation and your kid might try to meet that expectation.
posted by Fairchild at 5:49 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I got excellent grades in high school-- anything else was not an option. (I got a B+ one semester in one class. My Mom tried to get the school to make me take it over....) I got into a respected university. I got a degree in chemistry. I got a partial scholarship, but ended up with a ton of debt anyway (Thanks, Dad!). And I have been mostly unemployed for the last 3 years. I should, in, theory have 8 years of work experience in my field, and whenever my current temporary contract ends (who knows! it could be tomorrow!) I'll most likely be applying (again) for any shitty entry-level $10/ hr job I can find. If I had known it would turn out like this I would have gotten drunk a lot and skated by making Cs in high school. Make sure he gets halfway decent grades, but otherwise, it's just not worth it.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:58 PM on October 17, 2012


If his grades are good enough to get him into a decent college, then this isn't that serious. Once you're in college, your high school grades mean nothing at all. He may not end up in the Ivy League, but he'll be fine.
posted by twblalock at 6:24 PM on October 17, 2012


So - is your son passionate and interested in that thing ? Encourage him in that. Graduating from high school is important, but more important is that he learns to find and develop the things that he likes to do and is good at.

I've no experience with kids, but ...

I would suggest pushing him to take some sort of class where he works with his hands for a bit - cabinetmaking, pastry chef, machining. Or a robotics club. Or even martial arts.

There he might have a chance to learn while having fun and also see a relationship between disciplined effort going in, and a meaningful achievement coming out. And having people around him respect him for what he's doing.

This would be on top of seeing a tutor, using datebook software for assignments, keeping a whiteboard of his grades on his assignments and running average, etc.

Maybe also take him on a university tour, including the art dept, mech eng, esp. So he understands what might be worth striving for?
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:32 PM on October 17, 2012


I got good grades in high school. My life went kind of like this... excellent grades in high school, applied to a very mediocre local college, where I also got excellent grades. Got a full math & sci scholarship on the strength of my grades and ACT scores. Decided I didn't like it and didn't like math, applied as a very low-income first-generation college student to a nationally recognized top-tier school as a transfer, got admitted, had my tuition paid for by FAFSA and a grant for low-income students. Brought a $1000 private scholarship with me to help me pay for books my first two years.

In other words, grades helped me 1) get a full scholarship at a tiny state school in math and science (important because these are the only areas where that kind of thing is really offered), 2) transfer to a really good school on the strength of straight A's + writing talent + an amazing recommendation letter from a high school teacher + maybe a little "poor kid" affirmative action.

So what I'm saying is that grades were only a very small piece of each of those things. If he's not highly motivated overall, grades probably aren't going to make or break him. I know a thousand kids who get perfect grades but don't have much else going for them, and a thousand kids who are extremely bright and creative and thus can't "constrain" themselves to "grades" and "rules." I've seen the latter suddenly wake up (find a passion or a purpose) and start wildly overachieving, but I don't know what life is like for the first set. Honestly though, at the very small state school I went to first, there were plenty of kids who probably got B's, C's and D's, and they were still doing a math major, and some even went on to (small, local) grad school. Many found jobs in tech, and that sort of thing.

I think the likelihood that your son will be able to support himself is just as good as that I will be able to with excellent grades, a fancy alma mater and an English major. What is actually important is a basic sense of responsibility, curiosity, and character, because those are the things that will make you interested and persistent and self-sufficient (the economy being hospitable, anyway).
posted by stoneandstar at 7:33 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and is there anything at all he's interested in high school? Does he have any goals for the future? Getting not-so-great grades in one area can be okay if he's doing well and getting involved in another.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:35 PM on October 17, 2012


I can confidently say that when I was in this situation, nothing worked.

What did work was finding a way in state law to bail at 16 as soon as I was eligible and got my GED. Went straight to community college soon afterward. Look into methods of doing this where you live. If he's truly a smart underachiever, he will find his footing after getting out of high school (even if the community college transition is a little rough), and he will ace the GED with minimal effort.

I've got my college degree in hand now and a job that I love.

I strongly urge you to consider this option. Because there are many guaranteed admissions agreements with community colleges, he stands an objectively better chance of graduating from a top-flight college than if he tries to improve his grades now and enters through traditional means. The math is against him, he will not be able to adequately make up for past faults. There simply isn't enough time left.

The worst case scenario is continuing to pour time and effort into fixing his high school experience as time runs out going into senior year. Do the math and see if bailing leads to a better expected outcome--it did for me.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:30 PM on October 17, 2012


My 18 year old son was very similar. Nothing I did or said changed things during high school. He did not get accepted to his top 3 college choices (which were reasonable options). His 4th choice was not affordable. So he is in his first semester at his 5th choice school. It was quite a wake up call, and he is not happy at the school because it did not have some of the things he was looking forward to in a college.

His plan is to transfer, and that means he finally gets the importance of the grades. He is doing really well so far and is working harder than he ever has. Sometimes consequences are the only thing that they get, so as long as he isn't failing out of high school, maybe when he finds himself in a lousy job or lesser college, he will understand.
posted by maxg94 at 6:11 AM on October 18, 2012


I don't know what life is like for the first set.

people whose talent is getting good grades and fulfilling requirements gravitate towards fields where that kind of thing is rewarded. Careers in law and medicine are organized this way. On-campus recruiters for management consulting and investment banking tailor their recruiting process to appeal to people who are good at getting "gold stars" when asked.

So maybe your child doesn't go into that. Or maybe he wakes up one day and suddenly becomes and achieved who gets turned on and goes down that path.

But more likely no. What is important to remember is that your child has no safety net. I assume he has no trust fund and lacks a network of family friends who are going to guide him and put in a good word for him when he starts looking for a job. So in that case, grades are really the ONLY thing in front of him right now that he can use to distinguish himself to get what he wants. Does he realize that?

In my experience, the difference between who overcomes poor grades to get a solid job and who doesn't is who has certain personal and lifestyle goals for themselves and who doesn't. Some people grow up middle class or upper middle class and figure they are satisfied with living at home, because that allows them to maintain the lifestyle they were raised with without having to expend much effort. In those cases, lack of good grades didn't have a disparate impact on their lifestyle and goals, so they stuck with slacking.

Some kids run on autopilot and figure things out for themselves. Some kids need to have the value system of hard work drilled into them. What I can tell you is that ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away isn't likely to help. Some people just let inertia take over. If he chose not to work or go to college or become independent, what, exactly, would you do about that?
posted by deanc at 7:47 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


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