Dear Harlan: My high school junior has not been motivated. He has lied about getting his work done and is not working at the same level. He is usually an honors student. When I ask him to do his work he tells me there is no point. His teachers are being as kind as possible. The problem is that I can’t get him to do his work or find the motivation to do it. What can I do to help him?
Dear Stuck: I’ve seen three types of students bubble up during e-learning. First, there are students who totally fall off the grid. They have family issues, financial challenges and barriers that keep them from being able to engage in learning. Next, there are the students who love the freedom and autonomy that comes with self-paced learning. They are thriving. They realize they’re actually smart. Then there is your kid. These are the brilliant students who thrive in a world of structure and classroom learning. They do their best when surrounded by peers and connected with teachers on a daily basis. They are used to being scheduled, affirmed and supported. A lot of these brilliant kids are struggling. School isn’t fun when you feel stupid and isolated. There isn’t much motivation when doing the work just makes you question if you’re really good enough or smart enough. These kids are getting rocked to the core, and they don’t even understand why it’s so hard. Some students are dealing with trauma. There is research that says trauma can make it harder to concentrate and focus. Then there are students struggling with a fixed mindset. They believe their performance is a reflection on their finite abilities. When an honors student with a fixed mindset gets a poor grade or can’t focus, his entire identity can be shaken (read “Mindset” by Carol Dweck for more on this). Work isn’t fun when it’s a constant source of shame. Help your son to see that the problem isn’t his brain; it’s the dynamics of the situation. He has been asked to learn in an entirely different way overnight. It’s like asking a professional baseball player to bat left-handed after playing an entire career as a right-handed batter. This change takes time. It’s an adjustment. It takes appreciating that learning is not the same as before. Once he stops beating himself up and judging himself, he can start growing. He can get help without feeling shame. He can admit that this is hard. He can find joy in the process. It’s hard to watch him struggle, but the lessons he’s learning will guide him. Once he realizes what’s happening, it should get easier for him, and for you.
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