Facebook Twitter

Ask an Expert: Help for a bored ninth-grader

Mom and literacy coach Ilana Spiegel feels this dad’s pain. She too has a son who isn’t putting as much effort as he could into getting good grades. But, she also has ideas.

Q. Here we are at the midpoint of the school year. My ninth-grade son started the year with an academic bang but my wife and I sense his interest in school waning. By semester’s end, he was getting Bs and Cs with little work yet we know he’s capable of more. What do we do?

A.I, too, am the proud owner of a minimal effort, maximum potential ninth grade son. He, in turn, is the proud owner of grades that don’t match his potential. “It’s boring!” Or, “I’m taking all Honors courses, you know. They’re hard!” is often what I hear. I find it fascinating that his classes can be both yawn-producing and overly challenging at the same time.

As an educator who has traveled the country working in hundreds of classrooms, schools and districts, I can’t completely discount his observations and complaints of either ennui or unnecessary rigor. Books such as Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men (Smith and Wilhelm, 2002), Misreading Masculinity:  Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture (Newkirk, 2002) and Readicide:  How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It (Gallagher, 2009) cite countless examples of how and why our schools, classrooms and curriculum need to be re-imagined to motivate and engage our students. School, perhaps, is an input problem and minimal effort is the output problem we deal with at home.

A return to the toddler years

We also have to keep in mind that adolescent development is often marked by a resurgence of behaviors we saw during the toddler years: power struggles, tantrums and emotional outbursts that require limits, boundaries and a deep breath or two. The problem is not that our boys are older, but our old tricks don’t work. Although some warm milk, a soothing bath and a nap might be nice, they probably won’t up the motivation or engagement required to get good grades.

Not to mention our once 2-year-old sons are now taller than us and a whole lot more verbal. Shortly after reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (Chua, 2010) I, too, was informed by my teenage son, “A B isn’t a bad grade.” I was quite certain then that a B was in fact a horrible grade. I tried taking away the computer, Xbox and television. I tried offering a reward for each A. I withheld lunch money. And then there was the time I told him, “I quit.” For two days I insisted I was not living on his island of minimal effort and bad grades. I would not call those efforts some of my prouder mom moments.

Even proud moms, however, share stories of their straight A, perfect SAT, perfect ACT athlete, who volunteered building homes in Third World countries yet who did not get into the colleges of their choice.  So, what really is the goal of effort and grades?  To get into college? Or for life?

For either, college or life, school or home, I am looking to Clock Watchers:  Six Steps to Motivating and Engaging Disengaged Students Across Content Areas (Quate and McDermott, 2009) for some answers. I am giving it to teachers and administrators as a holiday “present.” I am reading it myself again to remember “The Six C’s: Creating a Context That Motivates Students and Nurtures Engagement” (I wish it was the Six A’s, but no such luck):

  • Caring Emotions are essential; keeping mine in check because engagement is pinned on emotions.
  • Checking in and checking out I need to ask “How’s it going?” even if I know the answer will be, “Fine.”  It is OK not to check in every day.
  • Choice My son can choose how much effort he puts in. I get to choose how I respond.
  • Collaboration Positive assumptions, probing questions and mirroring back what my son says so he knows I’m listening.
  • Challenge A little bit of dissonance can go a long way, but too much will stop him in his tracks.
  • Celebration Not just to acknowledge accomplishments, but to build a sense of belief in what can be done.

I can’t promise I won’t take away electronics any more (I am writing this post on my son’s computer), or that I won’t go on strike again (my husband reminded my son that there is such a thing as a “lockout” during a strike) or that a celebration might take the form of some cash, but I can promise to do a better job remembering that engagement, and, therefore, effort, involves emotion and behavior.

Perhaps when our boys see that getting good grades gives them more choices, more options and ultimately more control over what they do they will find what it takes within them to find that sweet spot, or the zone, of their learning and lives.

I posed this question to a counselor at my son’s school. Here’s what she had to say:

It is hard to motivate someone who is earning good grades to get great grades.  My experience is it mostly is a maturity thing. The student is not mature enough to see how not getting his best grades affects his future because he is living just day by day. One way to help is to talk about the future – what do they want to be when they grow up and then showing them how they get there.  Showing college admission expectations. Another thing that can help is hiring an educational coach to work with the student. This  helps with the battle between the student and parent and helps the student spend the time they need to get great grades. Hope this helps.

Yes, I hope this helps. Both of us.

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.