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Ask an Expert: Motivating a middle-schooler.

Q. How do I motivate my middle school son to do better in school? He just does not see the end results. What can I do to help him see that what he does or does not do now makes a difference later?

A. In the March 2008 issue of the journal Educational Leadership, Barbara Bartholomew wrote a compelling article about motivating students. In her article Sustaining the Fire she writes that, “…many of us believe that creating motivation hinges on the Promethean act of one individual delivering the flame of inspiration to another…Sustaining an interest in learning involves complex personal skills. It requires finding out what others value and empowering them to explore and build upon their dreams.”

As his mother, you have a sense of urgency around his personal and academic motivation that he may simply not have right now, hence your desire to ‘deliver the torch.’

Interestingly enough, his apathy could be the result of many things, but in following Bartholomew’s thinking, the real question is this: How can you empower your son to actively participate in building his future by engaging in his present?

What’s happening right now in your son’s life that you can point to as an inspired act? As apathetic as adolescents may appear, they are still capable of excitement and enthusiasm around the things that are of value and great interest to them personally. Starting with an acknowledgement of something he has accomplished can set the stage for having a conversation with your son about what made this act, moment, or experience so powerful. Naming and appreciating his strengths can help provide him with the context he needs to understand that his potential for success lies within reach, and is guided by his own actions. It also shifts the focus away from what he is not doing, a focus that may all to often be the topic of conversation.

It is also important to rule out more serious afflictions, such as depression or anxiety. Find out what’s happening at school: Does he have friends, or is he isolated? How are his relationships with his teachers? Is there one adult at school that he is drawn to?

Understanding what factors are in play at school can provide you with good information about whether or not his apathy stems from a feeling of isolation or failure.

Another factor that one always must consider is the adolescent diet. Apathy can look a lot like exhaustion. Making sure that he has healthy meal options and is getting enough rest is important to his overall wellness.

The more you can identify what’s working for your son, and what’s working against him, the more you can help him take control of the little things in his life that make a huge difference.

Finally, your interest in and love for your son are two big pluses in his corner. You are not alone in wanting your son to exhibit more interest in his academic career, and to take more responsibility for his future. Keep the dialogue positive, get him talking about his dreams and his interests, and continue to provide opportunities for him to see how his successes build the potential for an outstanding future. He won’t want to be left behind!

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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