So, the school has just let you know your teen has missed too many classes and their grades are falling by the wayside. It doesn’t make any sense: Why can’t they get motivated for something that’s going to impact their life? They were a good enough student before this year, what happened?
This situation is playing out across the nation as 2-3 times more students are failing classes during the pandemic compared to a normal school year. In some districts, nearly half of all students are failing at least one class. Many of these F’s are due to missing assignments and spotty attendance records.
Reasons why your teen might be refusing to show up for class
Before jumping to conclusions that your teen is ditching school for fun, check that their school absences are not due to underlying reasons related to anxiety.
Pre-pandemic, about 5% of teens actively suffer from school refusal, which is an anxiety induced avoidance of school. School refusal can stem from a lack of confidence in their academic or social abilities, bullying, or anxiety about specific responsibilities in school like test- taking.
Beyond traditional reasons for school refusal, even students who are typically on top of their work may be suffering from a lack of predictable structure and direct guidance from their teachers in today’s mostly remote classrooms. Like adults who miss the physical separation of work and home, many teens are struggling to manage their attention at home.
Furthermore, neuroscience gives a clear reason why teens in general struggle to make decisions that factor in long term considerations. During adolescence, the teenage brain is only beginning to develop its capacity for executive functioning, the clinical term for 11 cognitive skills that help adults plan and evaluate risks. Without mature executive functions, teens lack the ability to contextualize certain pleasures and to evaluate risks.
So, for many teens whose frontal lobes are still developing, sleeping in seems like a great idea compared to showing up for their early morning math class.
So what can you do?
1. Start a conversation
Without assuming why they’re struggling in school, have a conversation about what they’re feeling and what they perceive to be the challenge. Are they worried that they’re the only ones falling behind? Are they worried about being judged as “stupid”? Are they having a tough time fitting in? Sometimes simply understanding why they’re disengaged and asking them what they need to get back on track will set you on a new path.
Other times, they may simply say they don’t care about school, but you can still dig into why they don’t care, what they care about instead, and how all of this makes them feel. Validating their feelings of disliking school can help establish the trust needed to move forward to discussing your non-negotiables when it comes to school.
They may be resistant at first, because they know you’re disappointed, frustrated, confused… and they often are as well under their anger or aloofness. So start by inviting them to a conversation calmly, and be sure to establish a collaborative tone from the get-go. Something like, “Hey, I got a notice from the school today about your grades and I’m worried about how you’re doing. I want us to sit down together and figure out what’s been going on. When would be a good time to chat this week?”
2. Establish your non-negotiables and logical consequences up front
This is a great time to check in with your own expectations and beliefs about school. Why is it important that they do well in school? What does it feel like for you when they aren’t doing well in school? Which of your worries are truly your responsibility (e.g, to what extent are you responsible for whether they are a good student), and which are actually non-negotiable?
Non-negotiables represent bottom line rules that are not up for debate. These are usually rooted in facts (e.g, laws) and family values that are consistently enforced (e.g, honesty), and outline what you truly will not tolerate. Everything else is an expectation or desire, not a non-negotiable rule.
Identifying this bottom line and understanding your reason behind the non-negotiable rule helps you recalibrate expectations and make clear to your teen what is required of them, and why. Knowing your non-negotiables towards school also helps you evaluate how to balance your teen’s academic performance with other goals like wellness or family connection.
Now that you have a clear idea of what you absolutely need from your teen when it comes to schooling (versus just what you would like), find a time when you can have a private, calm conversation to discuss these boundaries, establish logical consequences, and explore alternatives together.
3. Avoid threats and ultimatums, build a growth mindset instead
Effective consequences typically have three parts, they’re 1) related to the original behavior 2) task specific and 3) time specific. Having all three characteristics ensures the consequence is logical and helps their teenage brain associate the consequence directly with the unwanted behavior. Keeping consequences task and time specific implies that the unwanted behavior is fixable.
Threats and ultimatums, on the other hand, tend to imply that something is wrong with your teen and instill a fixed mindset, which can be a killer for motivation. Worse yet, failing to follow through on threats and ultimatums (e.g., you’ll lose your phone privileges forever… until you actually need it for logical purposes) may reduce your credibility and your teen’s willingness to collaborate.
Depending on the underlying challenge (uncovered through #1), threats often backfire for various reasons. In the case where your parent-teen relationship is strained, teens may feel disrespected by your threat, and they may try to reclaim power by hurting you through their failing grades. They can see you feel hurt, humiliated, or angry towards their non-performance, and, in the worst cases, they’re willing to hurt themselves to hurt you.
In other cases where anxiety is the underlying issue, leading with fear by showing the teen legal consequences of worst-case scenarios may make things worse because they feel there’s no way to recover from their current position.
So, instead of threatening to take away everything they enjoy (which may also add to their anxiety and resentment towards school) or telling them their life will forever be ruined by this, look for ways to positively reinforce your non-negotiable rules about school and build a growth mindset. You might switch out threats like “If you keep missing assignments, I’m going to turn off your wifi” with loving but firm statements like “It’s such a bummer that you’re failing Math right now. I know that you’re going to find a way to pick your grade back up. Since we’ve agreed relaxing with screens is only available when you’ve taken care of your responsibilities, I’ll unfortunately have to turn off the wifi tonight. Hopefully tomorrow you can get your assignments in and enjoy some time on social media.” A key part of making this work, however, is managing your own emotions around their failure. See tip 5 and 6!
Looking for help thinking of effective, logical consequences for your teen? Reach out to a 1:1 coach today for immediate, personalized support.
4. Take active interest in their school work and collaborate with their teachers
Especially if your teen is struggling with remote learning, look for a way to engage with your teen’s school work that feels acceptable to them. This helps them stay engaged and also helps you find out earlier when something isn’t going well. Some ideas include:
Get access to their course management system (e.g, google classrooms, aeries, canvas) so you can follow along with your teen’s progress
Ask about what’s been the most interesting thing they’re learning lately
Watch TV shows or movies that give them a chance to show off their knowledge (e.g, if your student is somewhat interested in history, or studying US history, watch a historical TV show or a musical like Hamilton and discuss!)
Volunteer to tutor students in a subject you’re comfortable with
Work together to put up visual reminders of your family’s schedule so everyone can help each other stay on schedule
Coaching your teen on how they can reach out to their teachers to discuss falling grades. This teaches them to advocate for themselves and seek the help they need.
5. Let them fail, lovingly
While it may be terrifying to consider letting your teen fail their class, helping them experience the natural consequence of their actions (or inaction) is important for future accountability and growth. If you jump in every time to help them complete their work or ask teachers to change their grades, your teen is learning they don’t need to take responsibility for their actions. In the future, they’ll be even less likely to step up, because they expect someone will fight for them, or somehow things will magically work out on their own.
But as they fail, you have an important role to play: love them. Let them know that this failure doesn’t define them, and that you don’t think less of them for making this mistake. You know they are capable of fixing this next time, and you’re happy to help them think through their role in how this happened and how to do better next time if they’d like your help. This is incredibly difficult, because it not only requires you to manage your own anxieties from projecting this failure onto the rest of your child’s life, it also requires you to practice showing unconditional love for your child.
6. Don’t take it personally and focus on your parent-teen relationship first
Your teen’s academic performance is not necessarily a reflection of you. Don’t take their rejection of school as a sign of your failure as a parent. It isn’t. Every child has their own reasons for avoiding school, and your job as their parent is to help them identify those causes, problem-solve to get past them, and build resilience by modeling it.
Plenty of students go down this route and eventually find their way into fulfilling careers and financial independence. Failed classes can be made up. Missed knowledge can be learned. Parents who have been through this repeatedly share, “Until your children are ready to change, they won’t, regardless of how much prodding and shouting you do. And then when they are ready, everything clicks into place like magic.”
So in this process of helping your teen find academic success, how will you balance the other objectives like your own wellness or building a connected relationship with your teen? Allowing discussions about their faltering school performance to dominate your daily discussions may create a negative sentiment override in your relationship that leaves you both feeling disconnected, mistrustful, and demoralized.
You are doing difficult parenting work, so please, find a safe space for your fears and big emotions about their school performance so that you can stop taking it personally, and start taking care of yourself first.
Looking for a thought partner on your specific situation of trying to motivate a teen to do better with academics? Reach out to get matched with a 1:1 coach within 24 hours!