When Your Child Really Doesn’t Care About School

8-3-15 Goldrich, Cindy HS

The start of school is just around the corner and already you feel that pit in your stomach.  How are you going to motivate your kid to work in school this year?  The fear that your child might not put sufficient effort into schoolwork raises real alarms:

  • Does he realize what is at stake?
  • Will he regret not trying until it’s too late to turn things around?
  • What about college — will he be closing doors to his future?

As parents, we cannot control their behavior, only some of their options. Like a bumper sticker I once saw reads, “They can send me to college, but they can’t make me think!”

Why Doesn’t Your Child Care?

Kids are motivated at all times – they are just not always motivated by our agenda or what we think is appropriate. Lack of desire in school is often related to one of three things:

1. School is TOO MUCH

For whatever reason, your child/teen doesn’t believe he can meet the expectations placed upon him, and does not feel he can get the support he needs in the way that he feels safe and comfortable. Kids are under much more pressure academically than they have been in the past.  Some kids, especially those who struggle with slower processing speed, weaker working memory, and other related struggles, can truly shut down under excess pressure.  When the brain is stressed excessively, with cognitive demands beyond what one can manage, survival instincts take over. The reaction is fight, flight or freeze.

2. He doesn’t feel comfortable at school

Your child/teen does not feel safe in school for reasons related to anxiety (social or otherwise), depression, or bullying. Unfortunately, for some kids, school is just not a safe place. While it’s apparent with some kids that anxiety, depression or bullying may be playing a significant role in their school avoidance, some kids go to extraordinary lengths to mask their concerns and let it seem that they just don’t care.  It’s sometimes emotionally easier to put up smoke and mirrors to distract from the real pain and fear that lies beneath.  It is vital that parents and teachers explore any concerns carefully before pushing further for school involvement.

3. “I don’t need school!”

Your child/teen has outside interests that he feels conflict with or are mostly unrelated to any learning he is doing in school. Some kids truly don’t feel that school has any meaning for them in their future lives.  Some have interests in non-academic fields and don’t see the value in school learning.  They may look at the many start-up businesses successfully created by young people who have not followed a traditional path, and imagine that will be their path as well. And then there are some just don’t have any idea what they want for their future, so they can’t imagine why they should struggle with coursework that holds no interest or meaning.

So, What’s a Parent To Do?

If you feel you have a resistant child, and your continued pushing is having no positive effect, you may consider trying a different approach. 

Step One: Breath.  Really – without truly being able to relax the mind and body, it’s impossible to do the next step well.  Take three long, deep breaths and find somewhere comfortable to sit. Don’t forget to exhale!

Step Two: By asking yourself, and your child, some key questions, you can start to gather information about that will help you map out a road to action.   

Here are some important questions to get you started:

  • What do I know about WHY he doesn’t care?
  • Are the expectations placed on him reasonable, given his level of ability and available support?
  • Does the school environment feel emotionally safe and supportive?
  • What are his interests and passions, outside of academics, within the school setting?
  • Does he have any ideas about what he might like to do in the future?

Step Three: If you have a child who can see no value in his coursework, then sometimes it’s best to put the focus on the act of learning, rather than the subject matter and the grades. The goal and focus should be on learning how to learn – not just the grade.  For instance, even if the subject is not appealing, learning how to master reading complex material, or doing research on a subject, or memorizing certain information, can be related to skills he will need to pursue his other interests and can become the main challenge. 

Collaborate with him to set school goals that are attainable and that he truly buys in to.  This may mean letting go of some of your expectations and desires, but chances are that it’s not your wishes that motivate him anyway. Help him prove to himself that he can do what it takes to achieve in any arena.

Final Thoughts

It’s not easy to pull back and allow kids to have space to discover the impact of their decisions.  But sometimes, this is where the most important developmental growth happens.

If your child truly has no vision of a future, then you may want to encourage career exploration.  Exploring different career options and possibilities can open doors to drive and ambition.

Try to keep in mind: doors rarely are closed forever.  There are many late bloomers in life. And there are many others who took unique pathways and became incredibly successful once they had direction.  Keep a strong, supportive relationship with your child so you can be there when they need you.  And remember the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” 

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