How to Motivate an Unmotivated Learner By Nancy Wilburton, M.S.

How to Motivate an Unmotivated Learner


Counselor’s Corner

By Nancy Wilburton, M.S.

Dana Hills High School


How to Motivate an Unmotivated Learner


The scenario usually goes something like this; “Honey do you have your homework done?” “Yes, mom….we did it in class today”.  And then out the door he/she goes.  Unfortunately for many parents, after checking their child’s web grades or receiving their progress report, things just don’t seem to add up, literally (how did those zero’s get on the web grade?).  Sooner or later parents in this scenario realize they have been dooped into thinking homework is getting done when if fact it is not.  If your child is receiving poor grades and is telling you they have no homework, think again, they are probably following the path of least resistance.  Poor motivation is a very common problem among teenagers.  When you think about it, if you were 13 years old wouldn’t you rather be out socializing with your friends than doing homework?  So often parents are working late and return home exhausted hoping that their precious child has at least done their job (homework).  Teenagers inherently have more interest in working on their social life then working on academics.  Boys tend to mature at a slower rate than girls and often do not have the maturity level to manage their time and commitments without some guidance.  Motivating an unmotivated learner is not an easy task but can be accomplished by following some simple guidelines:


  • Establish a routine at home for completing homework, every day, at the same time. Most students who are missing assignments do not have a set time or routine where they do homework and are not being held accountable at home.  Establish a daily study routine and allow short breaks as needed.
  • Require a daily planner.  If your child does not have a daily planner you may purchase one through our activities office or your local office supply store.  The daily planner is crucial in ensuring homework is completed.  If your child frequently misses assignments, require that he/she show you the daily planner when they come home with an entry beside every class.  Even if there is “no homework” that should be written down (have teacher initial this).  If your child does not have the assignment written down, there is no way you will know what homework they should be doing for the evening (accountability).  Conveniently students do not write down assignments because in their mind if it’s not written down it doesn’t exist. Once you know what the homework is, your child can begin to tackle each assignment then show you the completed work.
  • Establish a behavior modification system at home.  Teenagers need to earn their privileges.  Many students are allowed to have access to cell phones, computers, socializing, television, etc. without earning it.  It is your child’s job to complete their homework and subsequently be rewarded by offering those things that are important to them.  You may incorporate a contract that spells out exactly what it expected of them and what they will earn as a result.  If your child is not completing their homework on a consistent basis, they should not be allowed access to privileges.  Conversely, if they do what they are suppose to, they need to be rewarded appropriately and immediately.
  • Don’t make consequences/rewards too long term. It is common for parents to implement rewards or consequences that are weeks down the road (long term rewards).  However, this is an eternity for a teenager who basically lives for today.  Although long term rewards are good, they must be preceded with rewards that are on a daily or weekly basis.  When reinforcing positive behavior you must provide an immediate reward or run the risk that your child gives up all together.
  • Be consistent and follow through.  If you do not follow through on what you say you are teaching your child not to believe you.  If you say you are going to reward their good behavior then you must follow up on those agreements.  If you say there will be consequences for not doing their homework, etc. then you must hold the line.
  • Both parents must be on the same page.  Parents must communicate with each other ahead of time regarding what the rewards/consequences will be.  Many students will play one parent against the other to get what they want or seek out the parent they know they can manipulate.
  • Remember your child is an adolescent.  For most teenagers school work is not as important to them as it is to you.  Most students are not inherently motivated and have not established long term goals. It is very difficult for most adolescence to incorporate the delayed gratification adults learn to incorporate into their lives.  Parents serve as an integral part of making sure their child establishes daily study and organizational skills.
  • Support your child’s interests and talents.  Although most teenagers don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, now is a good time to encourage them to start thinking about it.  I always tell students to think about what they are good at and love then figure out a way to get paid for it.  If your child is interested in creative and artistic endeavors, forcing them to choose a career in the math and sciences will only breed resentment and is likely to put a stop to any motivation they may have to succeed.  Help your child research a career by allowing them to job shadow or talk with someone who can give them guidance in that field.
  • Don’t allow your child to wear you down.  This is the underlying plan of many teens who think that if they argue often and hard enough they’ll wear you out and you will get off their case.  You must not allow your child to think it is okay not to do their work.  Holding them accountable at home in a loving and consistent manner will teach them responsibility and eventually lead to better grades.
  • Don’t set unrealistic expectations.  If your child truly struggles in school or is not on a college track, requiring exceptional grades will only lead to a power struggle, oppositional behavior, and possibly giving up on school all together.