How to help a 12 year old boy do better in school and life?
October 6, 2015 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Seeing advice about concrete steps to get a bright kid with some social and motivation symptoms to do better (failing) in school.

Goal: prevent constant fighting between parents and kids over homework. Make keep feel useful and loved and awesome. Help set up life success. Get parents less stressed over situation.

Ask: advice on books, which professional to call for advice, mantras, reframings, thoughts on undiscovered causes. (Professionals can be Twin Cities if needed.)

Previously tried: they switched his school. Problems have continued in the new school.

Possibly relevant, about the kid:

- low current intrinsic motivation / academic success (not doing homework, not prioritizing)
- likes video games (shooters, minecraft)
- no "acting out" problems
- feels "tired" all the time.
- lies about completing homework, etc.
- previously had trouble with bullies, few friends.
- anglo, in rural minnesota, upper class family.
- no diagnosed learning disabilities.

(My relationship: close family, able to give advice to any parties, and spend time with kid, but not close enough to do all the heavy lifting).
posted by gregglind to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it about learning or about homework? And is it about learning or is it about grades? That is, is he ok doing non-homwork schoolwork? And is he failing because he doesn't understand the material or is he failing because the homework is graded and he's getting 0s because he didn't do the homework?

If it's about homework and grades not learning, can you consider switching to a school where homework isn't really a thing? I realize in a rural area there might not be much school choice, but if there is a school with a different homework nearby, that might be your best bet.

Also, you said he's always tired: That may be the video games. Is he A) Tensing up etc. when he plays fast/suspensful games? B) Is he getting up at night after you are in bed (or staying up after you) and playing?

And finally, I assume depression has already been ruled out?

Oh, just saw that you're not the parent...I"m not sure this is your role. Take cues from parents about whether they actually want your help.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:24 AM on October 6, 2015

(Re, not the parent... they have asked for help. I want to have some useful feedback and avenues for them. It's not my job to solve it, clearly, but I can be a better advisor!)
posted by gregglind at 7:34 AM on October 6, 2015

Honestly, there are more important things than homework. What percentage of his grade does it even account for? If it is damaging his relationship with his parents then maybe they need to back off and let school be his thing to either fail or succeed at. They can explain to him that they will be available to help whenever he asks but that it's his thing from now on.

I would also suggest not allowing screens during the week. That way it's not a constant fight every day. And he could have a chore list on the weekends that he has to complete before he can use screens.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:37 AM on October 6, 2015

Does he not have a therapist? The video games is sorta like "He likes hamburgers" - that age, 90% of them like video games. Is he getting enough sleep can be a big deal, but this could be so many things that they need a professional child/teenage therapist for at least a couple of months to work with the child or family to figure things out. If they've already put the effort into switching schools and the kid is still unhappy, it's probably something more buried and difficult to diagnose, not something that can be fixed by a new system or motivational slogans.

Do the parents have shame about looking for a psychologist? Do they think he's not mentally ill enough or in enough distress to warrant counselling? It can be hard especially if you're going through public funding or insurance where there's pushback because they don't want to pay if the kid doesn't present as 'sick enough', but advocating for a child in early distress is A HUGE GIFT.

I have regrets for not pushing harder for one kid who I let myself be talked down with "no, he's not that distressed" from pushing for more intervention. It just gets harder as they get further into adolescence if they're spiralling downwards and the parents don't have the tools to help.

You can help them research and find some good recommendations for child therapists nearby, including family therapists, child psychologists etc. That's quite a lot of work and emotionally tough for parents to do - be a huge help for a family friend to do the research and come up with a good shortlist of doctors to interview.

If he goes to 3-5 sessions and the therapist tells the family "Hey, he's a regular young teen, a little unfocussed but he just needs more structure, make sure you have family dinners at least three times a week and practice those listening exercises, here's my card if you guys run into trouble down the road", that's a big question mark resolved for them about whether he's within normal bounds.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:43 AM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is his family life stable? Are his parents happily married/coupled? Is his father active in the boy's unbringing?
posted by jayder at 8:33 AM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is he getting enough sleep? Teens need eight to ten hours of sleep a night, and many are night owls due to hormonal shifts. (12 is not a teen yet but he will be soon!) There should be a "no screen time for two hours before bed" rule to help him get enough sleep.

Making sure he gets enough sleep will probably help the boy do better in school, as well - tiredness can manifest as low motivation and inattention. If enough sleep fails to make things better, or he's getting enough sleep and is still tired and unmotivated, he should go to the doctor to get a thorough checkup in case there is a physical problem making him feel tired and not do well at school.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:38 AM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is there any activity that might engage him outside of school? Extracurricular stuff like music or theatre might offer him a space for self-expression, as well as the opportunity to develop self- and time-management skills and improved self-confidence. Physical confidence is important, too; martial arts, imo, are pretty great for promoting that, along with many other important being-a-human skills, but all sports have something to offer that way - maybe archery, if he likes games involving hand-eye coordination?

Skills learned in these kinds of pursuits may or may not transfer to the academic setting, but I don't think it's possible to overestimate the value of having a safe haven from bullying, and an alternate source of self-esteem.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:15 AM on October 6, 2015

- no diagnosed learning disabilities.

Has he been screened for adhd? He sounds like me at his age, and I was just diagnosed this past month at 38. Part of that was the diagnosing therapist looking at old school files; and man, I forgot how bad I was at things that either didn't interest me or had lots of homework. I am female and I think that played a lot into my delayed diagnosis, but that doesn't mean that boys aren't overlooked too. Especially if he's smart and isn't particularly hyperactive.

The prioritizing mention especially hits home. I didn't prioritize because I couldn't (still can't). It frustrated my parents, and later in life me. I think of all I could have accomplished had this been recognized sooner.

It's probably obvious, but I want to throw that out there.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:05 AM on October 6, 2015

You might suggest an allergy test (the skin prick one) for food allergies. He may have a low level allergy to something in his diet causing internal "mild" inflammation, which just so happens to cause low energy levels (body constantly fighting itself, uses up available energy, etc). This can also affect mood and motivation (too tired to care about homework because too tired), video games can be a low energy activity because it's mostly passive focus and limited hand motion, versus homework, which is sitting up, reading, writing, and above all thinking (uses a large amount of glucose).

If allergies are ruled out, also look at food quality and quantity. Is he eating enough on a regular basis with a set schedule, or is he eating whenever he feels hungry and can find whatever food is appealing at the time? Foraging generally does not fulfill the nutritional requirements for someone who is having to exercise will power to focus on homework. Low blood sugar, or erratic blood sugar fluctuations have a very strong effect on the ability to focus and to have motivation for non-simple rewarding behavior (push a button, get a treat, versus push a button and get a treat next week). Again, video games are constant reward-stimulation. Homework is a reward that will pay off whenever grades are sent home.
posted by daq at 1:10 PM on October 6, 2015

Is his family life stable? Are his parents happily married/coupled? Is his father active in the boy's upbringing?

This is key. Bullies often target students with less-stable family lives. Switching schools will not change factors about the boy that make him a target for bullying.

And yes, what is his father doing? The boy is at a key age where he needs a steady male role figure (it sounds like he lives with both parents). Dad needs to get involved to inspire self-respect and confidence. He's old enough to start supervised weight training and learn boxing or some other martial art. Learn an instrument. Something that will inspire a sense of accomplishment to promote self-confidence.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:41 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hey - my kiddo sounds a lot like this kiddo. And because not all kids have in-tact families, or idealized situations of stability, here's what's worked for us so far. (Possibly relevant info: I'm divorced; biodad lives far away and has a new baby and partner; kiddo lives with me full time (except for summers and breaks); I have a partner with kiddos halftime; we sort of half-blend but keep separate residences. We all try to be thoughtful parents; we are all in less than ideal circumstances).

1. Therapy. I suspected that my kiddo was sometimes struggling with schoolwork because the complexities of kiddo's family life lowered kiddo's tolerance for frustration - so kiddo would freak out when confronted with challenging work and tend to skip through work that wasn't challenging without being as careful as kiddo needed to be to double check things. Giving kiddo a weekly opportunity to both a) discuss feelings with a neutral third party/vent/whatever and b) have access to an expert, outside person's advice about strategies kiddo can use to slow down, take a deep breath, and know that kiddo's "got this" proved really helpful. We are lucky that our school system has such a counselor and can see kiddo when things are tough and help kiddo through. It's been so good that we haven't felt the need to take recourse in weekly therapy sessions with an outside therapist (the school counselor doesn't recommend it at this point, either), but we keep that option on the table.

2. I learned a little bit more about what's called "executive functioning skills." My kiddo does great on tests - but is a lot less great at organizing kiddo's stuff, prioritizing what needs to get done, and estimating how much time things take. I found this book really helpful.

3. Based on reading around about helping kids develop executive functioning skills, we codified our routines (homework is done as soon as kiddo gets home while having a snack; everything packed up and ready to go for the next morning after homework is completed; teeth-brushing and bed timing starts at 8:30 - lights out at 9:30). We created a weekly schedule that stays on the fridge, with routinized information (what's for dinner if it's a special dinner night (taco night!), what days extracurricular activities happen (chess club!), what chores need to be done (walk the dogs!), other things that have to happen (good god take a shower at least every Tuesday!)).

4. Also based on the "executive functioning" issues, I created a checklist for my kiddo that kiddo uses to get through homework. I print out copies of this and hand kiddo one when kiddo's settled in from school and sitting down at the table to do homework. It asks kiddo to create a list of what's due tomorrow, look ahead at projects that are due later, reminds kiddo to take a deep breath and stay calm, gives kiddo a box to check when all work is done, and a box to check that indicates kiddo has put the things where they need to go and knows how to find them in the morning at school. There's also space for kiddo to write down something kiddo is proud of re: schoolwork. I hope we don't have to use this checklist for-ev-er (please). But for now, it's helping kiddo build some habits of mind, and it has the benefit of taking me a little bit out of the equation as a direct source of reminding, nagging, stressing.

5. I hear you about the screen time. We do our best to limit it around here, but - man - that ship is sailing fast on the cusp of these teen years. What we do, though, is put it last on the to/can-do list. No screens until all other responsibilities have been taken care of. We also have a hard stop time at 8:30, because sleep is important.

advice on books: Late, Lost, and Unprepared
which professional to call for advice: start with the school counselor
mantras, reframings: deep breath, you got this, work first - play later, routine-schedule-checklist
thoughts on undiscovered causes: executive functioning skills
posted by pinkacademic at 3:23 PM on October 6, 2015

I very much second dorothyisunderwood. When I was twelve this was me, except the video games were more like pinball / arcade games.

I was depressed. My father didn't think so, he thought I was useless. I took that on.

When I was 55 years old I found out I was depressed through a fluke of supplement-taking.

The intervening time was not fun.

Please, ensure that this child is not suffering depression / anxiety. You can waste a whole bunch of life thinking you're a fuck-up when you have a chemical imbalance in your brain.
posted by jet_silver at 7:02 PM on October 6, 2015

Nthing ADHD. A lot of people think of ADHD as hyperactivity, and that's true for many kids. But some kids with ADHD are primarily inattentive. They have trouble with executive function and focus. To teachers and parents, these kids seem unmotivated and irresponsible, so the adults can get impatient and frustrated, and that makes everything worse. And sometimes kids develop anxiety and depression on top of ADHD. And sometimes kids lie to avoid scenes, and parents and teachers get really angry and upset.
Been there.
You can start with a school counselor, but a visit with a child psychologist or psychiatrist for an evaluation might be a good next step.
posted by islandeady at 8:16 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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