Two books on motivating struggling students

Lately you’ve probably been seeing commercials and little blurbs in social media where parents are celebrating, and kids are moping, because it’s back-to-school time. However, those of you with students who are underachieving at school know the new school year will probably bring:

homework meltdowns and evasive action,

breaking in a whole ‘nother set of teachers,

notices about absences and tardiness, and calls to pick up your suddenly ailing child (oh really?)

trying to make sure all assignments are complete and turned in,

struggles to earn the lowest passing grade for a class,

countless arguments about the value of doing well in school.

Not exactly something to look forward to, is it?

Well, what if we could motivate our intelligent, capable kiddos to do their best, instead of dragging their feet?

When our sons were teens, I bought two books that offer plans for motivating students who are underperforming.  Although I didn’t really follow through with their plans, both books helped give me a better perspective.

I found the first book while wandering through a big chain bookstore. The title captured our situation and needs perfectly. It’s called Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child. Michael B. Whitley, PhD is the author.

In flipping through this book now, I see that Chapter 2, “Characteristics of Underachievers,” by itself is worth the price of the book. I found myself going “yup,” “uh-huh,”  “absolutely” to all the subheadings in the chapter, including “Underachievers fear feelings of personal responsibility” and “Underachievers make excuses that keep them irresponsible.”

The book goes on to identify six types of underachiever, with a chapter devoted to each: The Procrastinator, The Hidden Perfectionist, The Martyr, The Shy Type, The Socialite, and The Con Artist. There’s a chapter about well-intended actions we might take that fail to help underachievers, followed by chapters outlining fundamental principles for parents and disciplines for change.

Dr. Whitley advocates a model of parenting called the Totally Positive Parent, which pretty much means being compassionate, understanding, merciful, and patient while being disciplined, firm, and not accepting any excuses. The parents have to overcome their (understandably) negative emotions and adopt an attitude of helping the son or daughter develop self-discipline and take a longer view to the rewards down the line.

The book then presents an “easy-to-follow, proven ten-step program to help children get back on track.” It involves goal setting, linking the student’s achievement to attaining those goals, helping the child develop a plan, explore the decisions to succeed or fail in carrying out the plan, and following up. Sample dialogues on how you would conduct some of the discussions are included.

Why didn’t we do the plan? Why didn’t I become a Totally Positive Parent?

Burnout, from everything we’d been through with both sons, was a big factor. For me to internalize and effectively carry out Dr. Whitley’s program would have meant reading the book many times and rehearsing and … I didn’t have the energy or the confidence we could pull it off. To our sons, it would have seemed phony and lame – “Why is Mom being weird all of a sudden?”

In my case, it would have been better to attend workshops or classes about the program, and then a support group and follow-up Q&A with an expert if things didn’t play out according to plan. On my own, reading a book – it wasn’t going to happen. (If you follow the link to Dr. Whitley’s website, you can sign up for a free monthly newsletter with tips. I wasn’t aware of this, back in the day. The website also has a parent forum, but I see the last comment was posted over a year ago.)

If you read the reviews on Amazon, and the comments on the parent forum, you’ll see that many parents have been able to use the program successfully. So, it can be done ….

It should be noted that this book does not address what to do about students who have learning disabilities, Aspergers or ASD, ADHD, deeper emotional disturbances, etc. While I appreciate how Dr. Whitley talks about six varieties of underachievers – they’re not all the same –  he doesn’t talk about our kids, who have other challenges along with underachieving tendencies. I suspect the ten-step program may need some adaptations to be effective for them.

(By the way, the piece of paper I found in this book as a bookmark was a list of what Nathan had to do for school on a Thursday in his sophomore year. “History – turn in 3 assignments; Driver’s Ed – TURN IN NOTEBOOK!” etc. Sound familiar?)

I forget who clued me in on the second book, which is called The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child. The author is Richard Lavoie. He was known to me from his video about the F.A.T. City workshop, which I saw while Nathan was being assessed for learning disorders in sixth grade. The video shows educators and other adults experiencing simulations of what it’s like to have learning disabilities, including the negative input from teachers, peers, and parents. It is very worthwhile viewing.

The Motivation Breakthrough includes students who have ADD and/or learning and processing disorders. The six secrets in the title are related to six different motivators students may have: praise, power, projects, prestige, prizes, and people. One chapter is devoted to each. The book includes strategies that teachers can use in the classroom, and that parents can use at home to motivate academic performance and household chores.

The book states that rewards, punishment, and competition are not effective motivators. The deepest motivator is success.

Lavoie also talks about the three elements that must be present to be motivated: an attractive goal, a realistic amount of effort required to achieve the goal, and a good likelihood of achieving the goal.

This makes sense to me. In fact, a few years ago I used this concept in a presentation to a small group of children’s writers, getting them to think about why their characters choose to take certain actions and not others.

As with Whitley’s book, I found Lavoie’s book useful in helping me understand the behavior and challenges of our sons. I didn’t really implement specific suggestions from the book, mainly because I didn’t see a strong fit for Alan (the only one in school by the time I read the book) among the six motivators. You could say that, based on what I was reading, I didn’t have the third element of motivation: a good likelihood of achieving the goal.

It does seem like this book would be useful to teachers, especially those with seriously underperforming students. A good proportion of the book deals with classroom dynamics and strategies.

Dear readers, have you followed the tips in either of these books, or other books like them? Have you had success? Please leave a comment with your experiences!

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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. Born and raised in New Jersey, I've also lived in upstate New York and in Oregon. My profession involves maps and geography, which is usually very interesting. My hobbies are pretty boring - none of them involve tigers (or ligers) or jumping out of aircraft - so they do not bear mention here. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

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