Dr. A. Lynn Scoresby
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Motivating Unmotivated Boys in School

November 30th, 2007 by Lynn


You might be surprised and saddened to learn how many kids (boys) drop out of school when they are bright enough to do well and succeed. You might also be surprised to learn about the number of boys who suddenly seem unwilling, unable, or unmotivated to do anything else but lay around the house. If one of these children is your child or pupil, then you are not only surprised, you are very worried.

There are many reasons why a boy or girl in their early teens becomes disgruntled and begins to complain about school teachers, school work, or other forms of achievement. One of these is a mismatch between a student’s’ abilities and the tasks they are required to perform. As a group, children’s abilities might actually be better than in previous generations. But, conditions in schools are different. Schools have changed in the last twenty years and there is typically more work and the type of work is often less interesting and exciting, especially to the male brain. To understand this let’s consider two types of learning.

Taxon learning is learning about facts, figures, and bits of information. Locale learning is about actual experience with hands-on opportunities. In the last twenty years, partly because of the “No Child Left Behind” emphasis and partly because of a nation-wide commitment to focus more on math and science, schools have increased their emphasis on taxon learning. This favors girls’ brains but not boys’ and, for this and other reasons, we are seeing many more boys, and some girls, less interested in school achievement. This is due, in part, because their abilities do not match up with this change in emphasis. Further, taxon learning is easier to measure with traditional paper and pencil testing procedures. The increased emphasis schools are giving to this form of learning matches up with a new emphasis on required testing. This doesn’t go unnoticed by teachers. Many teachers, faced with all the required tests, have developed their own motto, “No teacher left standing.”

Even though the foregoing might explain some portion of why boys are unmotivated, we are still faced with this question. What motivates unmotivated boys? There are several things which parents and teachers can do. Where school is concerned it is essential to understand how the boy (or girl feels) about his or her intellectual skills and abilities to succeed in school. Quite frequently the evaluation process which goes on in classrooms has been interpreted by the child that he or she will fail and cannot succeed. If this is the case, then why try? His or her ability level may need to be improved or at least communicated about so it can be matched with the tasks given.

After assessing the child’s abilities to perform required tasks we can see if help is needed to improve the skills set. There are many programs, including those on this website, which will help improve memory and other study strategies. Then there are other things which can motivate. First, create a sense of family cohesion, classroom teamwork, and partnership feelings with other adults and students. Boys are motivated by the desire to belong, to contribute, and to not fail others. Peers in middle school and older are a very influential source of motivation or the lack thereof. Second, invite boys and girls to help others. One school in Chicago significantly reduced the number of predicted drop outs by asking high school boys to tutor low achieving third graders in reading. They agreed to learn how to tutor and then began to stay in school themselves in order to help the younger students.

Third, give positive attention and approval for students’ strengths. Sometimes parents and teachers worry and focus so much on the lack of motivation that we forget each child has unique strengths and these talents call out to be expressed. Attention and approval give recognition to that possibility. Fourth is engagement with a mentor (parent or teacher) who is willing to jointly work on a project of some kind. For example, a parent might ask for companionship to see how something works, or an activity in the out-of-doors, or a request to build something together. The project and the companionship are both essential. Fifth, work to achieve a relevant understanding of the child’s emotions, instead of a constant barrage of pressure and criticism, and know how to channel these emotions into some form of action. Understanding someone’s feelings comes through observation and communication. Channeling emotions only requires that a child take his sense of failure and frustration and turn it into a small desire to discover, create, or participate. Once started with a bit of hope, this can lead to trying to do something else which can grow into something more self sustained. Appealing to the example of other people who have gone through similar experiences is a good device. Albert Einstein, for instance, failed algebra and he changed the way we think about the universe.

There are other forms of motivation such as giving rewards for performance, praise, recognition, and etc. We need to become much better at all forms of motivation because we are at risk for losing many of our sons and daughters, at least for several years, instead of seeing them excited about their futures. Besides, an unmotivated child who becomes motivated means that many others will benefit. When that happens, we, as parents and teachers, will have done our jobs.

Posted in Child Development, Education, Parenting

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