Saturday 17 March 2018

Dear David Coleman: My 14-year-old daughter says she hates school. How can I motivate her to invest in her education?

Picture posed
Picture posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I am worried about my 14-year-old daughter who appears to have absolutely no motivation to do well in exams and says she wants to "just work in a shop". She was good in primary school but since starting secondary she just seems to be so disinterested. She does her homework almost immediately on getting home and then spends the rest of her time on her phone to friends. She is refusing to do transition year saying she wants out of school as fast as she can. We are shocked at her lack of motivation but worry about pushing her too hard also.

David replies: Being 14 can be hard. Most 14-year-olds live, very much, in the moment. They don't often do a lot of forward planning and can rarely, in my experience, visualise where they will be 10 years from now.

Usually, this isn't a problem. There is enough going on in their lives, between school, extracurricular activities and friends that they are fully occupied. They don't need to make too many important life-choices, as they can't really act independently to realise those choices anyhow.

But the lack of a long-term vision or plan does mean that the majority of the choices they make, in their early teen years, are mostly to do with meeting some short-term need or desire. Naturally, short-term decision-making could end up having long-term consequences.

How many of us, for example, rue the day we gave up the guitar or the piano? In our adulthood, we may long to be able to play an instrument, but have neither the time nor the brain plasticity to be able to achieve what we might have achieved had we stuck with it in our youth.

Youngsters' views about school can sometimes fall into the same category. Many young teenagers become disillusioned about school after going into secondary level. Because of circumstance related to the school environment, the teachers, the increasing complexity of the curriculum or the social mix of the school, teenagers can end up hating school and wanting to give it all up.

They don't look past the current obstacles to see how important education may be in giving them choices and opportunities later in their lives. They don't worry about not getting into college, or not getting a job that can sustain them and, potentially, a future family of their own.

It sounds like she is missing the long-term view that is necessary to stimulate individual resilience and doggedness in the face of short-term struggles.

It is well worth going in to the school to meet her year head, or guidance counsellor, as it might help to understand what her experience in the school actually is. What is it, for example, about secondary school that has sapped her enthusiasm that was evident in primary school?

Is there something simple to do with the curriculum, the subject choices, the teachers, or the social environment of the school that is bothering her? Talk to your daughter too, to try to identify any potential causes of her current disillusionment.

On the positive side, your daughter does continue to do her homework, prioritising it above her social life. She hasn't given up, entirely, on school.

If you find any problems, then work to try to address them. If there is nothing clear about what is causing her lack of motivation then do, absolutely, try to motivate her to continue to invest in her education.

Don't be afraid to push hard if you feel strongly that it would be good for her. Let her know your concern for her. At her age there is still lots of time to turn things around.

Sometimes youngsters can hear good advice, about staying in school and working to achieve good grades, easier from someone other than their parents. Is there any other adult, whom she respects, that could also try to encourage her to make an effort with her education?

Whether it is you, or others, trying to talk to her, you will get further with her by focusing on her strengths and encouraging her to use those strengths wisely, than by giving out, or complaining to her, about any lack of effort she currently puts in.

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