Unmotivated High Schoolers

Parent Q&A

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  • How does a parent work a strong-willed child (not academically strong) who goes off task when they're supposed to be doing schoolwork using the laptop? He can't be forced to do things.  Power struggles are unhelpful.  Intrinsic motivation and persistence skills aren't currently strong. I'd like him to not fall between the cracks at Berkeley High (he'll start 9th grade soon). His dad doesn't truly care if he doesn't graduate high school.  Welcome any ideas and advice. 

    I'm surprised you got no replies! I would assume many parents have struggled with these things. So you asked 3 questions 

    Q:How do I get my son to stay focused on schoolwork while on the laptop? 

    A: Have him do his homework somewhere other than the bedroom. Kitchen table maybe? Check in with him while he's working. Have him set a timer. Break large assignments down and work in smaller increments of time.30 minutes of uninterrupted work, then take a 10-minute break. Snack, walk around the block, talk to a friend then work for another set period of time. My kid has ADHD and this is what he does to get through difficult assignments. 

    Q: How do you motivate a kid who is resistant? 

    A: What does he care about? What makes him tick? Is there an external motivation that might encourage him to work harder? Set a few simple academic goals together and let your kid work toward earning a reward. Use positive motivation vs punishment. Praise the small improvements. Deep down, our kids really do want to make us proud, even if their stubborn 13-year-old self won't admit it!  Ex. If 70% of his assignments are turned in by Friday, he earns whatever reward you decided on. Stay positive, let him know you don't expect all A's but you do expect effort and work turned in. Not everyone is an academic genius, but everyone can pass a class by showing up and putting in the work.

    Encourage your son to get involved in an activity outside of school. My kid isn't academically inclined either but he's passionate about sports and that's where he gets his confidence boost. He's motivated to keep his grades up because he needs a 3.0 to play sports. Another thought, is it possible your son has a learning difference that hasn't been addressed? He may be struggling with attention or executive functioning deficits. Sometimes kids quit trying when they're struggling to keep up with the workload.  Set up a meeting with your son's teachers for guidance & support.  

    Q: How do I keep him on track at BHS?

    A: Honestly, I would be very hesitant to send a kid who's already disengaged and academically unmotivated to BHS. Sorry to say but these are the kids that can easily "fall through the cracks".   I know there are several charter high schools in Oakland and Richmond that may offer a smaller, more structured environment. Of course, there are also plenty of private schools to look into if you can afford that. 

    You mention your son's father doesn't care whether he graduates but how does your son feel? Talk to your kid about what career he might want in the future and show him the very limited options he would have without at minimum a high school diploma or GED. Talk to him about your own values regarding education and your dreams for his bright future. Wising you the best. Whoever said the terrible twos was the toughest time to be a parent clearly never had a teen:/

    Echoing 2boys2dogs on Berkeley High -- the school is great for motivated kids. But for a kid who doesn't have that intrinsic motivation, they're not going to fall through the cracks so much as fall hard for cannabis and potentially more (lean is a codeine + sprite conction that seems to be widely available; LSD and Psilocyben are pretty available; percocet and adderall are easy to get; alcohol is also very much present on campus). I would look for a way to get them to a school that is a bit smaller and has more supervision, for any kid who isn't already driven. If they're driven by sports or arts or academics, BHS seems pretty amazing. But if they're not, and they're not strong academically? They're going to bottom out fast.

    But also, I would try to find somethings he really likes. Prioritize that?

    I agree, re working in the kitchen, too. It is very reasonable to say "Sorry, but working in your room is a privilege." or "I want to support you in staying on task." Have him work in small blocks and get a lot of intermittent rewards. They don't have to be huge, they can just be small treats. But something to work towards helps a ton.

  • My son is a junior at Berkeley High taking a full load of IB and AP classes.  In the past, he has been able to get A's and B's doing very little work--relying on his strong memory and good testing skills.  His grades are dropping this year, (mostly Cs, Ds, and Fs)  not because he struggles with the content, but because he doesn't want to work at his school work. He agrees that he isn't working hard enough but he isn't motivated to do more.  He is participating in the college search process, taking SAT, visiting colleges, but isn't particularly engaged. 

    He has always been very good at living in the moment, focused on the present. In many ways this is an asset for an overall healthy life, but it isn't working at this phase where he needs to engaged in some longer-term planning.  The two passions he has are role playing games and video games.  These seem to be the only activities that he LIKES to do.   

    In the past our approach was largely hands off--giving our kids opportunities to learn for themselves how to manage their time and schoolwork.  Recently, I've switched to a much more hands-on approach (he might say micro-managing) that leaves neither of us happy.  Punishments seem to work only for very short periods and create more tension.  I've thought about bribes, but he isn't a kid who has a lot of unmet needs or desires.  There is nothing he seems to want to earn. He's pleasant and cooperative at home, has a couple of good friends and causes very little trouble at home or at school. 

    We've thought about tutors, mental health professionals, college counselors etc...what I'd like to find is a neutral adult who would talk with him about his choices, his motivation and help him think/see clearly what he wants.  We are open to supporting him with various options, working, gap year, college when he is ready, but we don't want to keep struggling with him about school performance.  Any recommendations for a counselor or other professional that could help my bright, sweet, smart, but not very motivated kid find some motivation?


    We have a similar teenager. We decided to have him test out of high school and get a job, because he was wasting everyone's time, especially his teachers, by not doing his schoolwork. He took the CHSPE in March of his junior year, and left high school at the end of that year. He worked at two part-time jobs for what would have been his senior year, he's now on a gap-year program overseas. He learned so much from working, lessons they don't teach in school - responsibility for showing up every day, the rewards of doing a good job, and the motivation of getting a paycheck. High school isn't for everyone. Think outside the box. Good luck.

    I am wondering how well he does on the SAT since some kids do well even if their grades aren't very good.  Still, in order to get into a good college, he would also need an essay explaining his low grades and what has changed about his motivation.   Some boys, mine included, take longer to mature.  We encouraged our son to take a gap year which he did and I encouraged him to think about taking another year off if he wanted to, before starting college. [with a lot of pushing, micro-managing and tutoring he did well junior year in IB and got into a 2nd rank college and was able to defer it for a year].   I would suggest that your son take off some time and get a job.   When he realizes that he can only get dead-end jobs, he might be motivated to study in which case BCC might be a good place to start.  He can transfer to Cal after 2 years and get a Cal degree.   I am a professor as well and find that many students are just too young and immature to be at a university; it can be a waste of money if they're not motivated.  I know first-hand that it's easier said than done, but I'd encourage him to get a job and figure things out.   It's likely that many of his friends will go away to college and he'll be left in Berkeley which may not be as fun.   If he's not motivated, there's not much you can do but they do eventually mature and figure it out.  If he doesn't after awhile,  I'd just insist that he move out which means he'll have to earn enough to pay rent.  He's a smart kid and will get there.  It is very hard to watch this stuff and you have my full empathy.  good luck!

    My son started community college classes at Foothill and DeAnza Colleges in 11th grade.  Those colleges are far from Berkeley, but they do have online classes.  He learned a lot and has very good experiences with his professors and counselors.  He is on the Dean's List and I think that helped him get into one of the UCs' Honors Program.  Summer is here soon and that may be a good time to start with just one class ... 

    A child and adolescent psychologist, as I read your post, I was quite certain you were going to say the one interest your son shows is gaming. This is true of an much of an entire generation of boys, as video games are built by psychologists and other brain experts to do just what they are doing to your son. This is a major factor as to why only 43% of college admissions are boys and why leading economists are saying the reason young men aren't working is because of their gaming. I understand it's really hard to set limits on gaming once it has its teeth into a kid, however, I would do your best with your son to limit his habit. My article published today will help explain more: https://medium.com/@richardnfreed/the-tech-industrys-psychological-war-…

    Best to you,

    Richard Freed, author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age  

    I would try the book, He's Not Lazy, by Adam Price. It describes my son to a T, and it sounds like it would be helpful for you, too. The book provides suggestions for how to parent kids like ours without nagging or micromanaging. It has definitely brought some balance to our household.

    I have a senior in IB and we all regret that a lot.  She is getting As, but is unhappy with the overwhelming amount of work she's done over the past three years. She is planning to take a gap year.  So you are not alone!

    His strong memory, good testing skills, and intelligence could have been masking a learning difference or other deficits until recently. It could be that they're no longer enough to get by on because of new expectations at his current grade level. Please consider having him assessed by a learning specialist or, preferably, a neuropsychologist. There have been recommendations on this site in the past as well as suggestions about how to get a reduced-cost assessment. Although it may seem that it's behavior or emotions, that he's "not motivated," it's also possible that it's become too difficult for him to continue compensating. Perhaps the workload has increased or maybe the work requires more maturity, judgement, or organization and he is now lagging further behind his peers. If a learning difference or some other condition is making school harder for him, don't expect him to recognize it because it's all he's ever known. I've known several students who were able to get by for years on their strengths until their weaknesses got in the way; for my son, the collapse happened in 4th grade, and for others not until college. It depends on the nature of the difficulty and their strengths.

  • Older parent having battles with Teenage Boy over effort, media and honesty with parents!

    Our son is almost 15 - a young sophomore, with little internal motivation regarding school and no enthusiasm for anything outside of media (movie, gaming, social media). He has demonstrated, with our oversight and guidance on studying, that he is  capable of getting very good grades (high Bs and low As). When given an opportunity to be fully in charge of his own learning, his grades yo-yoed (some math tests went as far down as F) and he struggled to get a C in 9th grade English no thanks to a totally unmotivational 26+ year long career teacher.  We had to step in as "tutors" to structure his study time and provide mini-lessons. It was a LOT of work. He has no vision for a possible career path to explore, no goal for what direction he will go in his next 2 years of high school.  He is a Boy Scout on the Eagle track. Enjoys scouting but not the work that can be associated with achieving Eagle. Like with homework, it requires something between encouraging and pushing on our part.   We are fairly strict about media (generally no video gaming on school nights) and we require (although he most often bucks the rule which is where our battles largely derive) that all mobile devices be placed out of his reach and out of the room where he is doing school work. He sneaks it where it should not be more often than not. He also isn't honest about what school work he does have to do. I get it that he wants to be independent, but he has not shown he is able to make smart choices with that so we expect a daily update on school work. If we can't see it on line he withholds the information. He can't seem to comprehend that this is only hurting himself more and his privileges than helping get what he wants. I don't even want to ask about whether we should get him a smart phone (parental controls on carrier's tie are useless if he has access to wifi) which will allow him to fit in with his peer group. He is generally honest with us about other things we ask him about (where he is going when with friends, etc.) We do not believe that ADD is an issue here as he managed to earn a first degree black belt at a rigorous studio between 3rd and 6th grades. Any ideas who we can work with to help light his fire AND get him to full heartedly treat his academics as his job on the path to get him to where he may really want to be some day. He doesnt have much respect for the knowledgeable organizational coach we have used (I guess because she is an advocate of banning all media on school nights). Colleges look for not just grades, but depth, breadth of life experiences as well as ability to take on rigor. I worry about the rigor part. Many students in our district take AP classes very young and I wonder if he will be ready any time in high school even for just one AP class. We hope that the lifeguard training he has taken will lead to a pool job next summer - a chance to gain confidence and independence. We are open to Jr. college as an option (if it is a best fit since he will only be 17) but are hoping for him to attend a small 4 year college as we'd like to retire then (we are open to temp moving to affordable college community to help make this  happen)

    As a parent of a 15 year old who is very similar to your son, I wanted to share with you my perspective. I had to learn to accept my son was not a clone of me, and as a result, has different hopes and dreams for himself than I do. While getting good grades and looking good on a college application was important to me at his age, my son does the bare minimum and races to get things done with little interest in doing high quality work. Here's what has been working for us.

    1. Pick your battles. When I was pregnant with my son, I imagined him growing up and getting good grades and doing well in school. But, that's not important to him at all. So, now instead of his letter grades, I focus on the learning. He does well on tests, but gets low grades due to his lack of effort on projects and homework. Rather than battle with him every night/school year about his homework, I emphasize that he needs to learn. If he can show me he is learning, then I let go that it disappoints me that he opts out of extra credit or gets C's in classes he should be getting A's in.

    2. Identify your worries. I've said, "I'm worried that you don't care about school now and that it will limit your choices/opportunities as you get older." We talk about life beyond school and what challenges might come up as a result of his academic indifference. He knows that he may not take the traditional path. But, that isn't important to him. That worries me as his parent, but it's my worry. He's a bright, resourceful person. He'll be fine. He definitely won't go to Harvard, and he may struggle at times to find his path, but I've learned to be ok with that. I trust that he will find his place in this world.

    3. Give him opportunities outside of school. If school doesn't excite him, then what else will? I used to sign my son up for all kinds of activities, hoping he would get excited about one of them. All that came out of it was him not wanting to do it, and life was much harder for the instructor trying to manage a kid that had no interest in participating. Once he started high school I changed my approach. I said, "You must participate in two activities - one physical to keep your healthy and active, and one extracurricular at school. I don't care what they are, but you must pick something." Once I stopped trying to excite him and put it on him to find things to do, he was easily able to find things that he enjoyed. 

    4. Appreciate his strengths. Rather than focus on what he's not doing well, celebrate what he is good at. My son is an amazingly empathetic person. He's a great friend and strong communicator. He's a wonderful traveler and enjoys seeing the world. He doesn't get A's in school, but if they gave grades for his other skills, he'd be getting high honors. School is just one part of his childhood and just one way to measure success. It's such a bummer to always focus on the negatives. Once I stopped always prioritizing what he wasn't good, it was amazing how much happier we all were.

    5 Set clear and realistic expectations. My kid is never going to stay up all night doing a school project. That's just his personality. But, there are certain things he must do - He must do chores, go to school and be a good person. 

    6. Natural consequences and earn extras. If he doesn't go above and beyond, neither do I!

    Good luck!

    If my child was not making a strong effort at schoolwork, was defying device-related rules, and the behavior was resulting in grades as poor as what you describe, he would not have ANY time with video games and only school-related time with devices (e.g., writing a paper on a Chromebook) until he corrected those problems.  His social life, and "fitting in," should be prioritized  below adequate academic effort and progress.   Once he has developed a better work ethic and is getting decent grades, or at least grades you are convinced reflect his best work, then you can  think about things like whether he has the right devices to "fit in."  He is not ready to manage his time or organize his work independently yet and expecting it of him will just lead to failure.  You'll need to help him until he's ready, and part of that help means creating strong incentives and removing distractions.  I would hold out the possibility of earning back some weekend video game time, etc., with sustained effort at schoolwork.  He really does not yet have the executive function to handle it alone; he still needs your guidance and active support.  That said, he can be expected to comply with the structure and rules you set and do his best to pay attention and try to improve, and the right incentives should help.  Be clear and unemotional about expectations and consequences and stick to your guns.  

    BTDT - been there, done that.  I have three boys and two of them are like that. Very smart, but couldn't or didn't do the work. It is heartbreaking!  Yes, you do need to limit screen time. But honestly, I would say, in retrospect, they really couldn't do what we hoped for them because of the ADD. I didn't realize this until the second one came along. If your son is not already on meds, please attend to that first. Second, if you can, change him to a school that understands ADD kids. It is so defeating for you and your kid to be constantly dealing with a school that is unable to understand the unique needs of a kid with ADD. If you must stay in public school, get him a 504 plan and email/visit constantly to make sure they are accommodating him. Exhausting but worth it. Third, figure out what he's good at and support him in that even if it means other areas suffer. This may mean he's really good at some stupid video game that you can't stand, but it provides him with a little status among his peers. Important for an ADD kid. Also, ADD kids have a lot of focus for exciting fantasy whereas boring topic like algebra and American history (admit it, they are probably boring to you, too) require an extraordinary amount of attention that is difficult for a kid with ADD. Finally, things that have worked for us:  Adderall, movies and TV and performances, Bayhill High School, Kevin Arnold the tutor, 3rd, 4th, and 5th chances, Adderall, a sense of humor, Adderall. Try not to worry too much. It all does work out.

    Feeling your pain.

    The way you describe your son---that sounds like depression to me. The fact that he was a high achiever until middle school then suddenly no enthusiasm for anything (except media) and loss of hope or plan for the future sets my alarm bells ringing 

    As the guardian of a 17-year-old who has suffered from similar problems, I agree with the parent who stated that you need to take action now.  You write that you are "fairly strict about media (generally no video gaming on school nights)".  I'm afraid that that is not nearly strict enough!  Your son should not be allowed any media on school nights, but on the other hand he should be given the "carrot" of earning the right to a (very specific) number of hours of gaming on weekends.

    The same parent mentioned that your son's executive function skills are still in development.  She or he is quite right, and so you need to step in to model good executive function.

    You also remark that your son "isn't honest about what school work he does have to do."  You should make appointments to see all his teachers (with him present) and learn what their assignments will be in the near future.  Then explain that you will "supervise" his homework until he has earned the right to do it on his own.  That means, when he gets home from school, you ask him what his assignments are, and when he is done with them, you actually look to see that they are finished (and put in their binder, so that he will be sure to turn them in.)

    You might also ascertain each teacher's willingness to be in touch with you fairly regularly in the weeks ahead.  

    This will involve a lot of work on your part, but the time is really now, while he is still relatively young.  Since he will resent the "helicoptering," he should soon realize that his best strategy would be to pull his grades up to the point that he has earned the right for you to back off a bit.

    Finally, give your son a lot of praise for any, even baby steps on his part.  One therapist we saw stated that children need to hear four words of praise to every criticism.  That is obviously impossible, but I keep it in mind to remind myself to praise our kid fulsomely for her every accomplishment... no matter how small.

    Tough love works.

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Unmotivated, unfocused bright 16 yr old boy who hates cookie-cutter school

Dec 2015

My son says he hates school. He doesn't like being around all the other students and hates the routine. He has been complaining about this for at least a year now. He is a junior. The first quarter he got straight A's and now I wouldn't be surprised if he ends the semester with a couple D's (or worse) because he just has so little interest in doing any homework. I have gone from prodding him to do his homework, yelling at him, grounding him, taking his phone away.... I just can't do it anymore.

I told him I would support him if he wants to look at alternatives to schooling. I told him about the CHSPE and surprisingly he expressed very little interest. He seems to think that's the easy way out or something, like he needs to still do some schooling. He talk to his counselor who told him about an independent study program where he can take all or some of his classes at home. He and I both are wondering if this would even work for him considering he's so unmotivated and seems to have such a problem doing the work. He thinks instruction would be better for him.

I just don't know how help him. He's been to the Doctor and he's also in therapy. There may be some depression issues which we are trying to determine, but frankly I'm wondering if this is an ADD issue. I'm waiting for a callback from his doctor on the subject. In the meantime I have a kid who is so stressed out about school. He is unhappy a lot - he says mostly about school. And yet even though he so stressed out, I see him doing very little to remedy the situation. He just keeps slipping lower into the grade-hole he dug for himself and his spirit and happiness drops right along with it.

He feels that he can't move on to college because of how his grades may end up, even if they're passing. He seems to think straight A's are required to get into a four-year college, and he doesn't understand that 's just not the case. Maybe if he were trying to get into an elite school or trying to get in on a scholarship... I'm not even sure why he so worried about college, because at the rate he's going, he's barely going to get through high school. If he can't study now, how will he for college?

It's hard for me to just step back and let the cards fall where they may, but I think that's what I have to do at this point. Even if he chooses to not go to school at all, I just don't know what I'm supposed to do about it. Anyone else in this position, or have been in this position, and if so, what did you do/not do, and how did things turn out? Bee

Hi, have you considered alternative schools? In particular, Mentoring academy is great for bright intense kids. Very warm environment, engaged teachers and students. My son desperately wanted to go there (we didn't send him there because we thought he should try a more standard school--however, Mentoring works at teaching students to thrive in standard schools as well, so maybe we were wrong about that!). We love the school. Maybe go to an open house, if they are still having any, and see if your son likes it? I had to drag my son to the open house and then I couldn't get him to leave....it's a wonderful place. My impression is that people either find it a good match or not rather quickly. He could likely start right away too as they have the kids working at their own speeds (which is why some of the kids are working well into college level). I hope it works out for you!! another parent of a different sort of kid

If you can afford it, the solution is Tilden Preparatory Academy! There is a campus in Albany and one in Walnut Creek. It is a one-on-one teacher to student format. It practices mastery learning which means they will go at your child's pace and keep teaching until your child has learned the material! The teachers will also adapt the material to your child's interests so the kids develop a love of learning. The classes are all UC approved, including an abundance of AP offerings. My son is exceptionally gifted and was very unhappy in the ''cookie-cutter'' public school. He was miserable so we enrolled him in Tilden and he is a totally different person. He is happy as a clam, loves his school, loves learning, and is eager to prepare for college. Because of self-pacing, he will graduate early. As for the social aspects, they have lunch clubs everyday, activities, movie night, and he has a lot of friends he enjoys hanging out with in the student lounge where he hangs out all day doing his homework. You can also do concurrent enrollment, taking some college courses and receiving both high school and college credit. Big fan of one-on-one learning

Bee, After two years at a very stressful public high school where our son was putting in decent effort but not succeeding, we moved him to the Mentoring Academy in Rockridge. He loves it - It’s ''200% better'' according to him. It is a game changer and is inspiring him in many areas of learning. They have a longer school day and mostly zero homework as a tradeoff for the longer day. The no homework policy was something my family needed in our life as the homework battle was damaging our relationships. He has only been there a few months, and it may not be as academic as where he was, but we feel thankful to have found him a school that is the right fit for him. Kim

I had several thoughts about your post. First, I wondered if there was something
going on with your son that really might not have anything to do with the
''cookie-cutter'' school. I saw a red flag because it sounds like this attitude is
new, so what has changed?  An embarrassing incident? Drug or alcohol use?  The
other thought I had was that if the issue IS truly about the ''cookie-cutter''
school, there are some alternative private high schools that might be a better fit
due to small class size and innovation. I hesitate to recommend any in particular,
as you don't really describe your son in a way that conjures up a specific program.
It's all about the match. If you can afford the private school route, it might be
worth checking out. Best of luck to you!
Mom of a struggling learner

It is hard to find he right path for kids. As a parent I've seen it close-up.  My
16 yr old hated school, so we tried to let her pick her own path, with our help.
You may be on the right track with the CHSPE since high school is not for everyone. 
Consider community college. Both my kids took this path, have thrived, and
transferred to top UCs.  Anyone interested in this path, feel free to contact me
for further information at pickyourownpaths [at] gmail.com (pickyourownpaths[at]gmail[dot]com)
Pick Your Own Path

I would encourage you to contact Tilden Preparatory High School on Solano in
Berkeley/Albany.  Talk to them about focusing on the CA high school requirements
for graduation.  My son had the most amazing teacher that to this day he and I are
so grateful for.

You don't mention what your financial situation is, but he might be a good
candidate for Tilden Prep. It's essentially a tutoring school -- either one on one
with the teacher or a tiny class. Our brilliant  ADHD son was starting to check out
in large classes with lots of rote learning. Doing his senior year at Tilden got
him straight A's and he never complained about going because of 1) the individual
attention from good teachers, 2) the lack of social pressure -- there is really
very little school community, except at lunch. (Our son is an introvert.)

On the subject of ''college despair'' -- boy, did he have it! That sense that you
were going to be a homeless person in the gutter if you didn't get straight A's!
Perhaps a college counselor needs to look him in the eye and tell it ain't so.

We took all the pressure off our son by telling him he was going to have a gap year
-- although with an internship. That gave us an entire year to really visit,
scrutinize and think about colleges, rather than make a hasty decision while he was
still in high school.

Finally, tell your son that only the high pressure Ivys require all that perfect
grade and test score crap. He can get in a lot of great places. And because our kid
had demonstrated a passion for science and had straight A's in that subject --
despite his other grades being erratic -- he was actually offered a partial
scholarship at a terrific college. With -- are you ready? -- ZERO extracurricular

There are colleges for non cookie cutter kids. Even colleges who want those kids.

Finally, it might be worth finding out if your son really does have ADHD. I'm a fan
of meds, at least for high pressure academic situations -- SATs, tests, papers. He
doesn't have to take them all the time.

And even more finally, what is he passionate about? He may find out that college
suits him more than high school because he can start to hone his education towards
the things he loves.

''It gets better.''
Been There

Disliking school is another question but in terms of getting into college, he would
be ok.

In general, a student like you son with a B/C average is definitely eligible for a
Cal State, and many of them provide a very good education. 

Here's the general info:

For example:
Cal State Northridge -- a total of 2900.
   SAT (scores in mathematics and critical reading) + (800 x high school grade
point average)
    (10 x ACT composite score without the writing score) + (200 x high school grade
point average)  

So if a student had a 2.5 GPA (which in most high schools is just a matter of
turning in work), they would only need a score of 900 combined on the math and
critical reading portion of the SAT.

It sounds like your son's perfectionism is getting in the way of his achievement,
and also finding a balance. Given that he had such good grades first quarter, it
sounds like counseling is in order.

Have hope! There are many, many options out there...some which look like school and

some which don't. Have you considered online schooling, or concurrent enrollment at
community college, or maybe something like Kalo Academy or Tilden Prep? Or an
adventure semester through Unschool Adventures or a semester abroad, or an
internship in his area of passion/ interest? Or maybe just reading the Teenage
Liberation Handbook? I'm sure there are more opportunities out there...especially
if you both become open to alternate routes and the road less traveled by
-unschoolly by nature

-There are many, many kids who feel the way your son does. Rebelling against a
system which is not a good fit for him is healthy and can be an exciting step
towards a better future.
-That said, switching away from what most others are doing, i.e. school, can be a
tumultuous time for both the young person and the parents involved. I commend you
for seeking advice and support.
-Self-directed learning skills can be learned and supported in their own right.
Just because your son doesn't have them now, doesn't mean he can't develop them. At
the same time, I agree with your concern that traditional independent study
programs often depend on existing school requirements and therefore are not the
best fit for everybody.
-Many high school aged learners in the alternative education world take classes at
local community colleges. Not only does this provide them with a more flexible way
to receive instruction and meet other young people, it also provides college
experience and looks very good on college applications. 
-It's great that you are pursuing therapy to find out whether depression is a
factor for your son, or not. Nothing that you say about your son in your letter
sounds like ADD, but that is certainly another question you can pursue.
-College (and more importantly, a renewal of the love for learning that all humans
start out with) is more likely to happen with an educational plan that feels
meaningful and engaging to your son, as well as healthy for you and your family.
I'm so glad to see you asking the questions you are asking!

Alanya S

I feel for you and your son; I speak from over a decade of very similar
stories - my daughter is currently enrolled in her senior year at
Holden, and two years ago my son graduated from Holden as well. This is
not a cookie-cutter school; the outstanding staff continue to amaze me:
they make an indisputable difference in the life of each student that
attends. Equally as impressive is the peer group; the kids are able to
connect in a profound way that enables them not only to become
self-motivated, but vastly more important, the relationships enable each
student to experience a feeling of belonging in this truly unique
community. I wish that every child was given this same opportunity to
learn, to succeed, and to mature; what a different world we would
Kim W

16 year old does the bare minimum

March 2013

My 16 year old son seems to refuse to put any real effort into anything he does. He has a 3.4 GPA, but without trying to do more than the bare minimum, and in fact seems to consciously avoid a 4.0 in order to not raise expectations. He is really fast, but we got a note from his track coach today that they are re-evaluating his membership on the team, as he doesn't really seem to care that much, and other kids are noticing. He is a good guitar player, but doesn't seem to want to do anything with it, dropped out of a band b/c it is not ''my kind of music.'' I am far from a ''tiger parent,'' although his mother can edge towards that, but I am getting frustrated. At this point if I could just understand his unwillingness to engage that would help. Any thoughts?

I feel for you. You really can't motivate someone else, and it's hard to sit there and watch someone cruise and do their minimum when you believe that life demands more.

Maybe he's depressed. Maybe he's acting out. Maybe he just doesn't care that much about these things. You can sit him down and say you've noticed this pattern, and you're concerned that it will affect his ability to have fun and succeed, now and in the future. But that ultimately...these things are his decision and his responsibility and you're not going to nag or discuss it with him again. And keep your word.

I was always worried that my daughter would be anxious and high-strung like me. Happily, she's a really mellow person. But so mellow that I began wishing she cared a bit more. She was definitely a ''not going to do the extra credit,'' ''the amount of work I've put into this assignment/activity is fine with me'' kind of person. But with her B-ish average in a small charter school, she got into UC Santa Cruz. There she basically behaved the same, and got through just fine. She graduated in four years despite losing a quarter to illness. She got out of college and got a solid job in a nonprofit where she's doing just what she wanted. She never does any of these things with the passion and intensity that would make me more comfortable, but man, she's a lot happier than I was and has a good head on her shoulders.

So...you may have to let this all go. Unless your son is being held back by depression or illness (you can check those things out), then maybe he just doesn't care that much about music or track. So be it. Bite your tongue. I know it's hard. I'll always worry about my daughter, who is fine

HS Junior Not Caring/Unmotivated

Jan 2011

This school year has seen our high school junior turn into a sullen, more angry 16-year old. His grades have plummeted and 2 girls ''dumped'' him and his friendship overtures. One called him a ''nerd''. We have weekend tutoring for 2 hours to no avail with his grades. He does not do homework in courses(some are difficult for him), tells us that all is ok at school but grades are proving otherwise even in his favorite courses. 2 D's for semester grades for the first time in his life. We have taken away his phone & I-touch and his dad is threatening to kick him out if his grades don't improve. Bad threat. Nothing seems to get through to him. He can get angry easily. His friends and our family friendships seem positive and college has always been emphasized in our home. Any suggestions for a therapist that can motivate a floundering boy? He doesn't seem to have any goals or directions and dislikes school this year. And - his dad and I are disagreeing about everything these days. Suggestions? Anon

I feel for you. We have a son the same age and are finding a lot of help in a Kaiser parenting class. (We are both education professionals and had to admit we needed help!) If you are not a Kaiser member, you can still purchase the workbook at Kaiser (health education dept)--it has a wonderful step-by-step (Parenting Project) curriculum to deal with difficult teenage behavior. It's a behavioral system and the consequences are kept simple and short term (TEASPOT: take everything away for a short period of time); otherwise kids feel they are on death row and will give up more. Also, it's crucial to tell our kids (verbally or in writing) the words ''I love you'' every day and give physical affection every day, because they don't necessarily pick that up unless it's stated explicitly. It's also imperative that parents act as a team. If not, some kids feel unsafe, some will work it to their advantage, and some may act out in order to get their parents to work together. In any case, I recommend you and your husband see a therapist the two of you respect to help you work together. Good luck! mom of two teen boys

Daughter is struggling to stay motivated w/heavy academic load

Oct 2010

Can you please recommend a female therapist to work with a high school junior who is struggling and needs help? She is taking a heavy academic load, and the homework seems to paralyze her. In good times she does well in school and is motivated. At other times she procrastinates, spends hours watching movies, etc. on her computer or just goes to sleep and doesn't do her homework AT ALL. At those times she is unable to motivate herself, feels out of control, and falls behind in her classes. Then she is glum and quiet/withdrawn. (Depressed?)

She says she doesn't need/want academic tutors for classes. She says she doesn't feel depressed but just needs help staying motivated, and she is open to therapy. She wants me (mom) to butt out, and I'm at a loss. What to do? Can you recommend a compassionate but effective therapist, preferably who accepts United Behavioral Health insurance, who can help? flummoxed mom

We have been very pleased with MFT Betty Tharpe. She is insightful, caring, AND able to do commonsense problem solving in ways that result in good communication with my son, me, even a recalcitrant algebra teacher at BHS. Her phone number is (510) 549-2092. My best wishes for you and your family. surviving the teen years...?

There are many people who can recommend a therapist. But I want to point out a few things before you go to this level.

Junior year in high school is the most stressful year. The student usually has advanced / AP / IB courses (often for the first time). SATs and SAT2 exams must be planned for and taken (often several times). College tours and discussions about ''what you want to do with your life'' dominate the dinner table and the water fountain. Social stratification becomes particularly acute (athletes, stoners, geeks, and so forth) and young people are ruthless in their narrow-minded categorizations of others.

So it's a really difficult time for someone who may be trying to move into the low-end of the ''smart AP kids'' group or the good-but-not-great athlete hanging around the top dogs or the loner artist in a ''gotta hang with the right people'' age.

If she's struggling, don't ask if she wants help. Just get her a tutor and let the tutor assess her abilities and structure a solution. It may not be so bad - she may just be missing some concepts. Or she may really be far behind and have to drop some of the load. This is a hard thing to admit - she'd see it as a failure - but sometimes things are just too much.

You need fair assessment of her workload, classes and capabilities at this time. Get it. And remind her that this is not a moral judgment on her intellect or virtue - it is merely getting a specialist for a short time, just as you would get a mechanic to fix the brakes on the car. No more, no less. Good Luck

I can highly recommend Rikki Sudikoff, an amazing, empathetic, smart, insightful, caring LCSW who specializes in work with teens. Rikki works at JFCS/East Bay, a nonprofit social services agency in downtown Berkeley. The agency accepts United Behavioral Health and also has a sliding scale. Rikki has an uncanny way of connecting with and helping teens. She can be reached at (510) 704-7480, ext. 761. Holly

I can personally and highly, recommend Dr. Fleury. Dr. Fleury is a highly qualified, well practiced, and sensitive therapist. She does excellent work with teens and relationships. She would be especially well suited for your daughter. She is located in Rockridge near the Bart station. Dr. Theresa Fleury, PhD (510) 404-8625 Office 5665 College Ave. Suite 340 B Oakland, California 94618 Anon

Karen Sprinkel at clearwater in Oakland karen_sprinkel [at] yahoo.com is the finest teen-whisperer there is. My son now in college could not have made it without her. Reenie

Unmotivated high school freshman - Help!

Oct 2008

We have a 14-yr old son (9th grade) who is bright but unmotivated. In middle school he was an excellent student-- all A's or mostly A's, until 2nd semester of 8th grade when his grades tanked (3 C's on his final report card). He just seemed to lose steam and not care anymore. After much debate over the summer, my husband and I decided to put him in a small private high school, where the class size is much smaller and he is not so influenced by what is going on socially. It's still early, but we haven't seen much change in his attitude. He doesn't see any real relevance of school to his life and would rather be on his skateboard or computer. He does his homework, but just enough to get by, and never studies for tests (although he does remarkably well on standardized tests). He announced yesterday that he no longer wants to play soccer or baseball, both of which he's been doing for years. Over the past 6 months we've taken him to 3 different counselors to try to get a handle on why he's 'checked out', but none of the counselors were particularly helpful. At home he's uncommunicative and moody, but with his friends and other adults (teachers, coaches, etc.) he's pleasant and respectful. I just don't know what else to do at this point. Any advice is greatly appreciated. (BTW, we have a 12-yr-old son who is a great student, confident, outgoing, loves sports, so it's not US!!! ;-)) Thanks. frustrated & worried mom

Our son followed a similar pattern, but he arced downward at a slower pace than yours. We went to therapists that were helpful in some areas, but didn't solve the problem. He tanked Junior year and we finally got him tested by a neuropsychologist (Alan Siegel). He diagnosed ADHD, inattentive type and various learning disabilities. Our son's high IQ masked these difficulties, but he was suffering in school and developed very low self esteem. We started w/ an educational specialist(Ann Gordon) and continued therapy, but he still hasn't turned around. Unfortunately, all along he escaped into online internet video games and has become addicted. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get your son tested for learning disabilities...my son did well on standardized tests too. Don't wait or postpone or think he will get better on his own and DON'T let him get involved with internet gaming. Earlier intervention might make all the difference...I so regret not doing this when it started in 8th grade. anon

You said you went to counselors with no luck, but has he been evaluated for hitherto undiscovered issues by a diagnostic professional? We took our son to Brad Berman in Walnut Creek, who was able to tell us that our son does NOT have bipolar disorder but is anxious. Please make sure your son is evaluated by an MD with experience in these matters; Brad Berman is highly recommended and there are others. A counselor can only do 'talk therapy', probably doesn't have the tools for real diagnosis, and with an uncommunicative teen will get nowhere. You need to eliminate the possibility of something like anxiety that could led to this. Best of luck!

My 13 yr old son has experienced a similar change just recently. He stopped all the sports he used to play (although is interested in a few new ones) and does not do half as well in school as he used to. I am anxious to hear what the others have to say in response to your post. Also I imagine you have to work to find the right counselor. anon

I don't mean to be alarmist, and I hope I'm not right, but the changes you're describing are classic symptoms of either depression, or serious substance abuse. I've know kids who started marijuana and cocaine in 7th grade who eventually turned themselves around, but their school careers didn't always survive. If this is what's going on, (1) your younger child is likely to know the truth, and (2) your older child's health may be at risk, which justifies parental intervention. I hear Kaiser has a good family counseling group for teens with substance issues. Good luck

Freshman year is a big change for kids. They start to look at things and decide what they really want to do. No longer playing soccer or baseball I think is normal. We tend to have our kids in sports at a young age and then at high school level they become much more stressful and competitive. They need lots of sleep as there bodies are growing. I'm sure you have met with his teachers at school and discussed his grades. My kids always started slow and worked there way up to A's. I am glad he is doing his homework. My son would do it but didn't turn it in. So your son is doing better then mine did. Relax and try to give him space to find out who he is. Don't you wish we could see the future. It would help us stressout moms so much. A mom that has been there

I recommend you consider Holden High School (925-254-0199) in Orinda. My 14 year old son was bored and not interested in his previous schools. He did just enough to barely get by. He was unmotivated--irritated by boredom. The staff at Holden has quickly managed to peak his interest and engage him in active learning. Holden teachers are everything educators should be. These talented people teach to the student, the individual WHOLE person, not just ''to the test''. They treat my son with dignity and respect and they truly care what he thinks and how he feels. He is now very happy and making good progress. Have patience with your son, he sounds like a very normal 14 year old boy to me. Check out Holden, they may be able to help your son. Ingrid - Happy Holden Parent

Nov 2008

Epilogue: unmotivated 9th grader
Hi, I wrote a few weeks ago asking for advice on how to help my unmotivated 9th grader (boy) who is irritable and not performing in school to his ability. Thanks to everyone who replied. We took him to a highly regarded psychiatrist who is an expert with adolescents. He gave me a detailed parent questionnaire and also a survey for each of the teachers to fill out. Long story short-- my son does not have ADHD, depression, or a learning disorder. He has an anxiety disorder. The MD suggested we start him on (low dose) Lexapro. Questions-- (1) Do any of you have experience with Lexapro in teens and its affect on anxiety (or other side effects)? (2) sidebar questions-- any advice on how to help my son be more organized? And, he doesn't seems to have any particular ambition or goal-- how can I help him identify his Talents & interests (which right now don't seem to go beyond skateboarding, music, and friends)? Thanks for any advice!! Concerned mom

Editor: in response, several parents posted their thoughts about How pushy should parents be?

Underachieving 10th grader not turning in homework

June 2007

I have a son entering 10th grade who is very bright but underachieves consistently. He always talks about attending an ivy league college but cannot seem to translate that desire into daily obligations such as turning in homework on time. This causes his grades to suffer. He is also not very well organized. We have tried some counseling and tutors. The tutors always remark about how bright he is. How have you handled this as a parent? The only arguments we have are over homework. Otherwise, he is a very caring, loving son. Anonymous

check out the hyde school at www.hyde.edu. they have an extraordinary and life-changing summer program. my son went there, and it changed our family dynamic so much that my daughter decided to go and teach there for two years just to ''give back.'' leela

Hello, I just read the post on Underachieving Teen on my e-mail. My son who has now completed his Junior year had the same problems as your son. I also did not know how to go about it. Again my son is also a very intelligent person, has scored highly in all his standardized tests and has somehow squeaked through with a 3.0 so far. Your son seems to be the same way as mine. This summer I have tried to try the School foe Independent Learners in Oakland and have had him there for a week now. Already my son is planning on attending this school to complete his High School. Just a thought for you to try them out and see. Some kids just seem to not work well in the traditional environment. I wish I had discovered this alternative earlier and improved my son's chances of college choices. Check them out on the web. Good Luck. Dee

I don't believe that high school is the best way for every child to be educated. Today, unlike when I was in high school, a sixteen year old can take the high school exit exam, or pass the GED, and enroll in community college. It's not for everyone, but it is an option for youngsters who want to learn but just can't get excited with high school. At Berkeley High, maybe other high schools, too, a child can remain in high school and also take a course at the community college. They can use those units for high school graduation as well as for college requirements. Check with your guidance counselor for details. barbara

The only thing that ever helped was Classroom Matters. A tutor, then later just going there to do homework. Unfortunately he stopped going in his senior year and I believed him when he said he could do it on his own. My boy just graduated highschool. Barely. It required me chasing him down the street shouting get back here and do your homework. I would have been embarassed except that parents are often seen chasing their offspring in our neighborhood. anon

Unmotivated Junior says he's ready for college

May 2007

Hello, My son a junior in HS is very smart but his grades have been slipping, will not submit assignments properly and just wants a way out of school. He says he is ready for college but I am not sure. The behavior he is exhibiting does not give me any confidence that he is mature enough to handle college. Should I let him take the CHSPE and try to get admission at a UC? His standardized test scores are very good with some more to be completed. Have kids who have taken the CHSPE been admitted to a UC? How have they done at College both academically and socially as they will be younger than their peers in age? Anyone, please your advice and suggestions are welcome and appreciated. A very worried Mom.

High school was not working for my daughter and she took the CHSPE jr. yr. She had an A- avg in HS, and after 2 semesters of community college had a similar college GPA. She had decent extracurriculars, a part-time job, and some community service (My impression is the existence of these activities is important, not the quantity of hours or years spent doing them.) Her SAT's were not great. We found nobody who took her exact path, CHSPE to private college, and had no idea how it would work out. She was accepted at 4 small liberal arts colleges as a soph transfer. I think UC's would be easier because the CHSPE is a state-defined part of the system, and if he took even just a year at a community college, those track right into the UC system... although the AA degree I think is the usual route to state and UC colleges.

Going straight from CHSPE to UC with no record of college- level success... not sure. I do know the GED carries more weight because it is harder, goes deeper into more subjects, and is a nation-wide thing. But you have to be 18 to take that, and being too young at time of transfering out of HS is a justifiable reason not to have taken it. If he's 18 it would be required over the CHSPE - UC's may ultimately require it anyway.

It can definitely work if the current behavior/declining grades are not due to inability and don't continue. My daughter was driven and ambitious... what is your son's underlying purpose or vision? Is there some situation at school or elsewhere causing the grade drop and lack of interest? Perhaps something can be rectified there with only one more year left of HS.

Guidance counselors should be able to help with this. Public school guidance counselors are more knowledgeable, open to, and less judgmental of, alternative routes to success than private school counselors. My daughter went to a private HS but we got excellent advice from the public HS counselor even though she didn't go there! Hope this helps... anon

2 of my children decided that high school just wasn't for them for different reasons. Both of them took the CHSPE, one at 15 and one at 17. They both went on to Community Colleges. Despite dismal high school grades, my son got motivated at a community college and went on to graduate from a 4 year school with honors. My daughter was a B student and just didn't get the point of studying too hard in high school, but she has a 4.0 at DVC, and plans to transfer to UC Berkeley.

I don't think you can go to a UC armed only with the CHSPE, but it can be a good choice for a mature kid who is willing to spend from 3 to 4 semesters at a community college first. I know that some colleges will accept transfers without high school transcripts after 40 college units and some require more, but we never made an exhaustive search since they both picked schools and then worked to fulfill the requirements for transfer.

Whether to let them live on their own or live at home is a different matter. worked for my kids

Why not schedule a session with an educational therapist who can help you determine what's going on with your son and how you can best deal with the situation? Educational therapists can also help with college plans.

One possible reason why a junior's grades might be slipping, and why he might appear unmotivated, is a learning disorder. The ''Predominantly Inattentive'' type of Attention Deficit Disorder sometimes causes bright students to lose interest in school. (It's hard to maintain interest when you're ''slipping in and out'' of attention in class, and having to re-read and re-read assigned texts. Grades may plunge because assignments aren't submitted, so the student gets great scores on standardized exams--and even on in-class exams--but much lower course grades.

I'm an educational therapist, former staff member at UC Berkeley. Please email if you think I can help. No charge for email or initial telephone consultation. Caroline

Very worried Mom, You haven't given enough information about your son to be able to offer useful advice. How old is he, what else does he do in his spare time, what are his academic interests, what behaviors make you question his maturity, what evidence has he shown of his ability to adjust to a new environment or to do college level academic work? If he has slipping grades and ''very good'' but not excellent standardized test scores, how do you know he could do well academically at a UC? Have you seen him carry out project he is interested in?

Normal admission to a UC requires completing a required set of courses. Admission by examination is quite rare at the highly selective UC's and requires superlative college examination test scores. Does he have superlative test scores? Would he be willing to go far away to a new UC campus (Merced) or to one of the less popular ones in southern California?

A lot hinges on how self-motivated he is, how able he is to do college level work, if he has goals or just wants to get out of high school. Any negative behaviors that tip the balance? So you have to evaluate the evidence you have. If you have no evidence of his self-motivation and ability to follow through when out of the protective high school environment, then maybe he needs to prove himself first at a community college. Or at a job. Work experience would be good, to help him mature and see what the real world is like. Maybe he could get a job first. Or participate in an international community-oriented program.

Perhaps one way to deal with it is to have him outline his strengths and weaknesses for you and try to build the case himself for why he is ready to go to college. Then let him research what it would take to get in. If he is not able to do this, that would be telling.

Another option is for all of you to talk with an educational consultant. Anonymous

Just an idea, have your son look at this school http://www.simons-rock.edu/

They specialize in students that want to go to college early. They need to have a good GPA so maybe if he looks at the school it will motivate him. They have full scholarships for qualified students.

Maybe it is the right time to start looking at colleges. I highly recommend quickly looking for a college summer program at a place of interest to your son in a field that he has passion for. If he wants to learn to program computer games, or learn painting, or study the ocean there is a great progam for it at some University or College: for instance www.EducationUnlimited.com www.bu.edu/summer

I gave this advice to one teen and his family from this list several years ago and a good friend of my daughter's. Guess what? The teens were ready for college and when they had a taste of what was in store for them their high school work improved and both were admitted to all their first choice colleges. One should be half way thru college now and one will be entering this fall. These are true stories, I just said ''Do you know you can do this?'' They didn't at the time but when they checked it out it seemed to fit and fall into place.

run a google on this topic summer Programs for teens at Universities

and you will find many, many great options. Some of the programs have scholarship assistance or sliding scale. Or bite the bullet and pay the costs if your son finds something he really wants to do - make the deal that his grades and homework need to receive his full attention.

It is important to support your student to find their passion and how to be great at what they want to be. Our ideas of what is reasonable or practical may be stifling to them and not necessarily what will work in the marketplace for their generation.

I know a lot of people with professional degrees who cannot find work in their field. Some of my most successful friends returned to school to get second BAs,and then advanced degrees, took a while to find themselves. Following your passion with guidance, emotional support, and appropriate educational experiences can make a huge difference in launching your life.

Even if your son does not find an ideal summer program, searching for what interests him will be a great opportunity for him to explore life outside of high school. So even the search is a good thing. High school can be very confining exspecially about the junior year. A class at Berkeley City College or the City College of San Francisco might work equally well. Or think about a service project, helping others is a good way to help yourself.

If it helps I would be happy to talk to your son to help find out what he is interested in or you can both email me. Good luck claudia

first, i send you wishes for huge patience & grace with this. i know it's a really tough situation. i'm writing you back because i was that kid. i failed high school (was held back a year) while being smart, high SAT scores, talented musician, etc. your description of him is like looking in a mirror for me. for me, the environment, as supportive as my parents were trying to be (and they were loving, generous, curious - doing the best they could), was the issue for me. the instant i got away & into college, i instantly manifested discipline, interest & enthusiasm, and did fine in school & wonderfully in life. only later i heard that i could have taken the equivalency test and gotten out earlier, and was angry that nobody had offered it to me.

i don't know the statistics on how ''well'' kids like that do leaving HS early, but i know that i would have been thrilled. and a little bumpiness in a transition like that couldn't have been worse than the hell of depression - being in an obviously stultifying place (suburban high school). a year living at home doing pre-req's at a community college might be an acceptable compromise (to him) to the full-on UC entry. another possibility that comes to mind is giving him more autonomy while staying where he is. more leniency of outside activity, or offering some activity he really wants (if you can figure out with him what that is) - essentially sending the message that you, like him, don't believe that high school is a very satisfying, full-person place to be. take a semester off & travel around the world together? or a foreign- exchange type program for him? think outside the box. whatever you find, i wish you (& him especially) all the best. sean

Struggling in school and apparently unmotivated

March 2007

I am wondering what to do for a student who is struggling in school, and seems to have a lack of motivation to improve. I do not know exactly why there is not much effort on the student's part, but have some ideas it is related to emotional issues. I think I would like to find someone or some program to help him over the summer, when we have more time for extra help. I do not want him to fall further behind, and would like to also get a handle on this negative school attitude. Any ideas? thanks. needing advice

We were in a similar boat. I got the book ''Bright Minds, Poor Grades'' which was ENORMOUSLY helpful -- re-oriented my thinking on the matter. Also got a great tutor through One Smart Kid (Marci Klane is wise and talented when it comes to hiring for her tutoring company -- every tutor we've worked with has been the right match for my son's particular needs at the time)415-285-6507. You didn't include many details like your son's age, grade, or emotional struggles -- but hope this helps. Evie

I'm an educational therapist working with intelligent teens who are having problems in school for one reason or another. Many of them appear unmotivated, and many say that school is ''boring.'' Sometimes they really are bored; sometimes their schoolwork is being affected by emotional issues; but quite often they are showing the effects of a learning disability or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. It's a good idea to check out this possibility with an appropriate professional: for example, an educational therapist, learning disabilities specialist, or developmental pediatrician. Caroline

Ms. Parker is a therapuetic learning specialist. She was the director of Lindamood-Bell Berkeley and is now working towards her PhD in education. Ms. Parker works with a few students during the year, and has more time for private students in the summer. Ms. Parker is experienced in working with children who have various learning challenges. Ms. Parker is very intuitive and has a natural ability to connect with and motivate students. Ms. Parker helped one of my children with organizational skills, and my other child with his writing. She was dynamic and engaging with each of them and adapted her style to meet their particular temperaments. You can reach her at 510 530-9571. a happy parent

My 15 year old was totally disillusioned and unmotivated by high school and refused to go. We eventually found, interviewed and eventually sent him to Holden High School in Orinda (formerly Contra Costa Alternative High School), and he really likes it. You might want to check out some alternative high schools. alternative solutions

16-y-o son is almost completely unmotivated to do any work in school

Feb 2007

My 16 yr. old son is a late fall birthday junior in high school. This school year, he is almost completely unmotivated to do any work in school. Part of it is boredom, but his almost straight A high school average is now B's and C's and is getting worse, mostly because of missing assignments. He lies about doing his work, about doing it well, and about turning it in. All he wants to do is play videos, talk on the phone with girls, and hang out with his friends. He's always relied about natural talent rather than hard work but we used to be able to get him to do his work - now he doesn't actually rebel - he just sits in his room without doing anything. His friends are similarily unmotivated. Our son DOES say he wants to go to college but doesn't seem to connect his rapidly dropping grades to his dwindling opportunities. VERY FRUSTRATING and causing quite a bit of stress in our family. We don't think drugs/alcohol are a factor - just immaturity, slacker friends, and laziness. And maybe, he's not ready to grow up yet? Any suggestions would be appreciated. Mostly we've relied upon taking away computer, cellphone, going to friend's houses, etc. but that only works temporarily. And, as we tell him, soon he will be an adult and being such a slacker really isn't going to cut it (his room, personal hygiene, and approach to household chores is equally lax). anonymous

I would be worried that your son uses drugs. The behavior you describe matches 100% of what we had to go through with our teenage son, and we had the same initial reaction as you. But no, this is not immaturity. This is your son's concious choice to do what he does, and there is a very high chance he is involved with drugs. The drugs are so easy to get in schools. The biggest mistake you could be making is refusing to accept in your minds that the situation with your son may be serious. We have made such mistake. My advice: make sure you are right - search his room and all belonings, find out how does he spend time with his ''friends'', install parental control on his computer and read the book ''Before it's too late'' by Stanton Samenow. If you are able to prove to yourself that there is no drugs involved, your son should be able to shape up in a few months. Julie

I think that it is likely that your son is using drugs. I always thought that I would ''know'' because I did drugs as a teen growing up in Berkeley and that the signs would be obvious. My daughter was using on and off for a couple of years (starting at about 13) before I knew. I could see some of the same things that you are - low grades (in her case C's, D's and F's), hanging out with large groups of friends (the ''knoll'' on campus and Starbucks at the corner of Center and Oxford among the hang outs) and general slacking. Some of the drugs like meth are truly frightening in that they can cause brain damage or death. There are lots of interventions. Most of them involve getting the teen out of the environment all together. We started with a wilderness program (they work with kids who have just behavior issues, not drug related) and have moved onto residential treatment programs. You can find out quite a bit from the observations of counselors and teachers - for example, they saw my daughter smoking cigarettes in the park across from Berkeley High - something I never saw until much later. I hope this is not what you are dealing with. Good luck. anon

My 16 year old son was also unmotivated in school--bright kid but not trying, happy to get C's and an occasional B and hang out with friends and play video games. I've had excellent results with him working with Kevin Arnold, a tutor who has helped him organize his time better and helped him in Spanish and a few other subjects. (Kevinarnold2004[at]yahoo.com) They meet at a cafe which makes my son feel more grown-up. A former teacher, Kevin has a low-key, friendly, supportive manner. My son and I now argue a lot less about school work and his grades have definitely improved. Happier Mom

The behavior you describe is ''typical'' behavior for a child your son's age. My 18 y.o. went through the same thing at 16. If your son goes to a large high school, he may not have a teacher or counselor looking after him (a go-to guy). He might see other kids not doing any work and passing anyway. There are some smaller charter schools around, and someone mentioned a program in Berkeley, I think, where the kids do their high school work in the a.m. and then go to college classes in the p.m. This might work for your son.

You are doing the right thing about controlling computer and gaming time. Make extra time a reward for good grades, helping out or keeping himself clean for a week. Remember those little charts we did when they were younger? Gaming can be very addictive to a teenage boy, and Ive seen some kids cut school etc. to get back on.

What I had to do with my daughter was to budget her computer time (there are programs you can download to do this). I also began asking to see her homework before I would let her do anything. In addition many teachers respond to e-mails and you can ask them if he turned in his HW. I also noticed that when the teacher knew whose parent I was, and they saw we were involved and concerned, they paid more attention to how my daughter was doing. (squeaky wheel theory)

Good luck with this, and keep after him. He might appear angry at first, but he should come around. He will appreciate your involvement in the future. Jenny

We completely agree with the posting about tutoring from Kevin Arnold. Our 13-year-old suddenly developed test anxiety and his grades dropped. He seemed totally unmotivated and exhibited the same apathy and seemed only to be interested in video games, etc. We hired Kevin for weekly sessions, and we're very happy with the results. If you can afford a private tutor, Kevin is great and seems to win the trust and confidence of his students. Best wishes to you - hope this situation doesn't turn out to include drugs -- Wendy, Oakland

I just left almost the same response to another post... Paul Osborne, Paul The Tutor, seems to have some very good success with these types of students. Paul has a nice way of connecting with these types of students so they see the possibilities. In addition, he tutors almost any subject, so can help with which ever subject a student needs help at any given time. You can read more or send him an email from his website, www.paulthetutor.com His phone number is (510) 301-5302 Good Luck, Parent and Teacher

Unmotivated HS junior seems destined to drop out

Feb 2004

My son is a Jr. in HS and his participation has gone from bad to worse. I doubt very much that he'll be eligible for graduation. We have tried unsuccessfully to motivate him. He shows up to school whenever he feels like it. I'm trying to let him know that eventually he must accept some responsibility for his future and that once he turns 18 it's either work or school. If anyone is in a similar situation, please advise? Thank you.

Been there done that. There are a LOT of kids out here like your son and we parents all struggle along. The best advice I got was to have him take the Cal. Equivalency Exam (CHSPE) (see previous advice here. But he needs to be under 18 and it's only given 2 times a year, so don't put it off. If he passes, he can then take community college classes, or get a job, while he figures out what he wants to do. I am still waiting for my 18-year-old to figure that out. But I found it was a big waste of energy, time and money to try to keep him in high school when he wasn't motivated to be there (and we tried 3 different schools!) It was a relief once we made the decision for him to drop out and take the CHSPE. Good luck!

I also have a son who is a junior who is ''barely'' in school. Last semester was a total loss. This semester he is attending class, but not much else. He is aware of the choices he is making. We tried therapy, which he refuses to go back to. My suggestion would be to make an appointment for a check up with his pediatrician. The pediatrician can ask about depression too. Check to see if he is experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Try a therapist. Take each day as it comes. Be supportive and patient and remind him everyday that you love him. Also that finishing high school is a must!. After talking to other mothers and teachers, I have found that the junior year is extremely stressful. We've lowered our expectations and now feel that if he makes it out of high school, we will be happy. After that, he will decide on what to do. The anxiety that is created just in growing up coupled with the competition for college is too much for some kids!

There are many programs for young people who are spiraling out of control academically, emotionally, and/or socially. They are usually referred to as ''emotional growth programs.'' Enrolling your child in these programs can seem extreme and be expensive (depending...) but they are well worth it if it gets your young person back on track in the end.

Programs in this catagory can range from 6-week-long outdoor adventures to behvior-mod style boarding schools to study abroad (and get-it-together-too) programs in Costa Rica or Samoa (literally!)

Please don't be too discouraged as you move through the adolescent years. They are tough for most, and really hard for some. After living in boarding schools for 10 years, helping to raise and mentor young people who were struggling, I learned this -- most kids end up just fine in the end, even if they have pushed their parents (and sometimes themselves) to the scary brink of disaster. I recently reunited with several of my old students from a while back. They were working, taking care of themselves capably, and living happily. (And, their parents had survived.) Breath through it all. Always breathe...

Best wishes to you and yours. Wanda

TO the parent who is concerned that her son will not graduate. As a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, several thoughts came to mind as I read your e-mail. If your son's refusal to attend school represents new behavior, he may be depressed or experimenting with alcohol or other drugs. Is he hanging out with a new group of friends? Is he more secretive or has his behavior at home changed? Is your son capable of completing his assignments at school or is he struggling academically (not just because of time missed)? I would talk with his teachers to find out about your son's behavior when he does attend school. If you know parents of his friends or classmates, you might want to express your concerns to them. They may be having similar difficulties with their children. Mary

Underachieving 15 year-old - what to do?

April 1999

My smart 16-y-o son (at BHS) has been utterly unmotivated since jr. high. and his 13-y-o brother is close behind. Last report card had two D's on it, one in Ceramics, if you can believe that. He says the teachers don't like him. They say he doesn't turn in his work. I don't know how to solve this problem but I will tell you what I've tried, and what the result was. Maybe others on the list will have ideas. If not, we can at least cry together on the mailing list!

1. punishments - I've tried all these for periods of a week to an entire grading period: come straight home after school, no TV, no video/computer games, no weekend sleepovers, no more allowance Result: no noticable results

2. rewards - instead of allowance, hefty bonus for A's and B's, nothing for C's, deductions for D's and F's. Extra bonus of TV in his room for all As and Bs. Result: slight improvement first grading period but zero profits all grading periods since then and he never qualified for the TV

3. nagging & lectures - "Where do you want to be in 2 years?" "How will you live in the Bay Area on miniumum wage?" "How will you get into college with a 2.3 GPA?" "When I was in High School" "All the Things you Have that I Didn't Have" etc. etc. etc. Even his friends nag him about his crummy grades. Result: if he's feeling happy, he says either "I guess I'm just lazy" or "Mom - think of what you're doing to my self-esteem" If his self-esteem is low, or I push him too hard, he says: "You just want me to be perfect! I'm not like you were!" and there is a big screaming fight and we both feel terrible for days .... I know self-esteem does come into this, but how do you preserve their self-esteem while still trying to prevent them from making huge mistakes?

4. private school - my son takes this as a threat. Very possibly this might have helped, but he loves the social life at BHS so much, and it is so important to him to be with the friends he's known since kindergarten, that I have never seriously considered this.

5. tutoring - this is about the same as trying to get him to do regular school work, only there is an additional person also trying, and you have to pay them to do it. The problem is not that he doesn't understand the material - he doesn't want to do it. The tutor also wasn't able to convince him to do it.

6. phoning/meeting with teachers - Result: predictable ("He doesn't turn in the work") This can also have the undesired effect of turning the teacher's attention to a previously unnoticed poor student, which has a couple of times for us meant even WORSE grades - now the teacher is expecting lousy performance from your kid so even if he improves, he may be already tagged for failure. On the other hand, I think it's good to meet with the teacher now and then so your kid knows you are interested, and that you care about his school work and are trying to find a way to make things better.

7. meeting with the school counselor - This was beneficial. The counselor listed all the classes and credits he's taken and he is actually not doing as badly as we thought, even though his grades suck, as he puts it. She had some helpful suggestions (find a study group). We felt encouraged. She also suggested we NOT take him off his jr. varsity team, something we had considered, because outside activities help with college applications. I also realized that being on the team is a big part of his identity, and that it helps him feel important and useful, so it would be devastating to have that taken away even if it interferes with his academic performance, which I am not so sure about.

8. talking with my friends - this helps a lot. Everyone has stories of the sister/nephew/husband/son who went thru high school with a C average and then blossomed in college when he found his niche. Or even later than college. Or maybe never, but "he's a really nice guy and everyone loves him." Seriously, some of my friends have teenagers who are brilliant in school, same schools as my kids all the way through, have fabulous GPA's and all sorts of extra-curricular activities, and are highly self-motivated, seemingly right out of the womb. That does get discouraging and it's hard to acknowledge that my kid just isn't like that. But it still helps to talk to other parents, because there are all sorts of kids, some better off than yours but some worse off too.

9. focusing on his good points - He's a personable guy, enjoyable to be around, has a good bunch of friends. These attributes can sometimes be more useful in life than stellar grades. And we have a pretty good relationship and he has never given me any problems with bad or risky behavior, which I am grateful for. I hardly ever tell him I appreciate these qualities, and I should do it more, now that I think about it - it seems like they can't get enough praise. He doesn't say anything back, but if I just say "You look nice in that shirt" his face lights up!

Anyway, I hope you don't put too much blame on yourself, because there are a lot of us out here struggling with the exact same problem, and there don't seem to be any easy solutions, at least not that I've found. But I'm always open to new ideas, so if anyone has something, send it on!

What has worked for me with my 14 year old son has been a combination of reward and punishment. For reward he gets more of what he wants such as more time for playing on computer, sleeping later on weekends, watching more TV and...... For punishment he looses privileges and things he wants the most such as things mentioned above.

This situation sounds just like my 14 year-old, down to the "sometimes almost brilliant" who just brought home 3 C's "work turned in late/incomplete." First, the parenting of teenagers just isn't something to feel that confident about unless your child is a mutant. Having a child who is brilliant but won't do the work is a constant struggle! Don't give up.

In your multiple choice test use psychology, punishment and witholding sparingly; I have had the best results with bribes and threats. If you use bribes, give the reward and then threaten to withdraw it if the desired behavior doesn't materialize. For example, put the phone in the bedroom, but clearly state that if there's more than one C (or whatever standard you want to hold him to) that the phone will be removed. It's a "you catch more flys with honey than vinegar" thing.

Most importantly, (at least to me) don't sacrifice other family values unless absolutely necessary. Seek out some large privelege or material thing he wants, and either tie it to the report card or give it and say it will be taken away if the standard isn't met.

Above all, be consistent and follow through. Do what you say you'll do. If you make a threat and fail to follow through, all you've done is teach him that your threats are meaningless.

This approach works for me and my daughter, I hope it works for you!

reply to underachieving 15 year old

It might be worth screening him for a brain disorder/mental illness. You mention that his father has a mental illness, and sometimes those are hereditary. I don't know what his dad has, but if a teen is struggling with bipolar disorder, depression, or ADD, their life can get pretty out of control. Treating the underlying illness might help him get back on track.

The only thing that is more challenging than parenting a teenager is parenting a teenager with a mental illness, but it can be done. Finding out if there is anything going on with the brain chemistry can really help. Best wishes to you.