July 02, 2015

Q: My 15 year old boy refuses to accept any responsibility for school. He will sit and stare at his books for hours and not read anything. When he does his homework he doesn't turn it in. He hides work packets that are sent home. He lies about having conversations with his teachers. We have tried taking away privileges like TV, phone, games, etc. and giving him guidelines on how each privilege can be earned back. He tells us he doesn't care and school is useless. How do we motivate him?

A: Adolescence is a lot of fun, isn’t it?

Whenever a child is having difficulties at school, a parent wants to gather as much information as possible, so it is often helpful to meet with his teachers and the counselor to get input from them, as they would have a different perspective and have the opportunity to observe him during the school day.   A parent would also want to try to get information from a child himself – for example, is the work too hard, does he get distracted too easily, is something on his mind – although sometimes adolescents may not be aware of why they are having difficulties or may be unwilling to talk about it.  After gathering this information, a parent may come up with some strategies to address the problems.  What is often helpful are strategies such as breaking the homework into pieces with short breaks in between, so a child will have less chance of getting bored and distracted; checking the school website or keeping in contact with the teachers so that the parent knows what the assignments are; and focusing on earning privileges as opposed to taking them away (and making sure that the privileges can be earned on a daily basis, and not just in the long term).

When a child has difficulties completing homework, or homework takes a very long time; is not turning in homework; lies about having (or hides) homework; and/or lies about school related matters, a parent might want to consider having the child evaluated to see whether he has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as these problems are very common in children with ADHD.  Parents should also keep in mind that the word “hyperactivity” in the term “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” can be misleading: a child does not necessarily have to be hyperactive to meet the criteria (there is a subtype in which the symptoms are primarily those related to inattention).  School problems can also be the result of a child’s having a Learning Disorder, because if the material is too difficult a child may easily give up and not be motivated to try hard.  And it is not uncommon for a child to have both ADHD and a Learning Disorder.  If a child does have ADHD or a Learning Disorder and it is not properly assessed and addressed, school will likely be very difficult and his chances of success will likely decrease dramatically, so it is important to take these issues seriously.

A parent interested in getting an assessment for possible ADHD or a Learning Disorder (or wanting to address any other issues that could be leading to school problems) can contact the school counselor or pediatrician for a referral to a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and teens.  Other parents can also be a good source for the name of a good psychologist.

Keep in mind that if a child has a disability (such as ADHD or a Learning Disorder) that significantly impacts his schooling, he may be eligible for an assessment and special help through the school system, free of charge to the parent.  Such services can make a world of difference for a child. Every state is required by law to have a Protection and Advocacy Agency that can help parents get such appropriate school services (a parent can locate the one for her state at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/add/states/pas.html), and a wonderful website that can help parents learn about their rights in these matters is that of Wrightslaw (http://www.wrightslaw.com/).

Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig


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