How to Motivate Teens Struggling With Remote School

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We’re nine months into the pandemic and remote school is wearing on students. Boys, who are at greater risk of falling behind academically than girls, are having an especially tough time with all the hours spent behind screens. The challenges of staying focused and motivated in remote school carry even higher stakes for adolescent and teenage boys, who face more academic pressure than younger ones.

I reached out to child psychologists and education experts to find out how parents can help their sons—and daughters—remain focused and motivated in virtual school. They all said the first step is for parents to examine their own expectations and reactions to their children’s struggles. Here are some key pieces of advice:

Enlist your child in developing solutions

“What you need to do as a parent is try to stay away from your own catastrophic thinking and use your foremost consultant, which is your child himself,” said Michael Thompson, a child psychologist and author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” He added, “No one knows more about what he likes and what he hates about school than he does.”

How do you elicit meaningful feedback from an adolescent or teenager who responds with one-word answers? It’s all about how you ask the question. Dr. Thompson suggests saying something like, “I see you’re struggling with math and English. How can I help you with that?”

Experts caution parents against being accusatory. If a teacher has alerted you to missing assignments, you can say to your child, “I heard you’re having a hard time turning things in. What’s happening?” suggests Jeffrey Selman, vice president of clinical services at First Children Services, a behavioral health and special-education services provider for children in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Motivation is often tied to success: The harder something is, the less a child wants to do it. But parents sometimes mistake their struggle for feelings of indifference, according to Matthew Cruger, a clinical neuropsychologist and senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute.

By offering to go over homework or helping kids study for a test in the evening, parents can get a better understanding of what the stumbling blocks are. When I noticed that my 10-year-old son didn’t do well on a grammar test, I sat down with him one night and went over sentence structure. Once I explained predicates and conjunctions, he got it.I asked him why it was hard to understand this during class and he said the teacher went over everything too quickly. I thought he just wasn’t paying attention, but I discovered that he was getting lost in the cacophony of group Zoom sessions and needed some one-on-one attention.

Beyond homework help, parents can ask their kids if there are other things that can improve their remote-school experience. Some kids might prefer to work from the couch for part of the day instead of from their desk. And if teens function better in the afternoon or evening, that might be a better time than morning for them to work on independent assignments.

In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink argues that autonomy over how and when we work is one of the greatest motivating forces for children and adults alike.

Don’t underestimate the power of praise

Praise isn’t just for little kids—it’s an important motivating factor for adolescents and teenagers, too.

Multiple experts said it’s best to separate performance from effort when giving praise. Many kids with ADHD and general distractibility spend a lot of time completing their work and then forget to turn it in. Of course, some boys rush through their work to move onto something more rewarding, like playing videogames. Parents should praise the effort that went into the work instead of only focusing on the grade, said Megan Narad, an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

While saying “good job” can go a long way, tangible rewards can be helpful, too, if handled carefully. Rewards can be a slippery slope as children come to expect something for everything they do, thus chipping away at their intrinsic motivation.

Experts say rewards can come in the form of providing kids with more choices, something that’s especially important at a time when children have lost so much control over their daily lives. Even something as simple as letting kids choose what to have for dinner or what movie to watch during a family movie night can help boost their motivation.

The experts I spoke to were all in agreement that positive reinforcement is far more effective than punishment in fostering motivation.

“When we use consequences to encourage positive behaviors, it doesn’t work. If you take something away because your child didn’t turn in an assignment or got a bad grade, it’s discouraging and it doesn’t make it more likely for positive behavior to result,” Dr. Cruger said. “If you just keep taking things away, you eventually run out of things to take away.”

Dr. Cruger advises parents to reserve negative consequences, such as restricting videogames or phones, for more serious behaviors that they want to put an immediate stop to, such as fighting, cheating, lying or stealing.

Create to-do lists and break down tasks

Since a big part of motivation comes from a sense of achievement, now is a good time to review whether we’re setting our kids up for success. Being successful without the structure of the classroom requires kids to know exactly what to do and when to do it.

“If you don’t know what to do, you’re more likely to avoid it, and that looks like disengagement,” Dr. Selman said.

I’ve offered some tips for making remote school easier in a previous column, but there are some structural things parents can do to help with the executive-functioning skills adolescents and teens haven’t fully developed.

Dr. Narad suggests writing down a list of tasks that need to be completed each day for kids to cross off. Make another list for longer-term projects and break those down into smaller tasks that can be completed each day, so that your child is seeing progress and not scrambling to complete a big assignment right before it’s due.

Depending on children’s age and maturity, you might need to check for a while to make sure they really have completed their work and turned it in before you can trust that they’re doing it themselves.

Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture

Kids often don’t see how what they’re doing now matters. It’s important to discuss the purpose of sitting through long video classes and doing the work. “We all do things we don’t want to do, but if we think about why, it can motivate us to do it,” said Julie Kolzet, a clinical psychologist.

All of the experts said it’s important that parents show their children—and themselves—some grace.

“Our kids’ whole lives have shifted. They’re dealing with things we never thought they’d have to deal with on a daily basis. Some kids can’t even access the internet,” Dr. Selman said. “We need to be realistic about our expectations of adolescents and teens right now.”

—For more Family & Tech columns, advice and answers to your most pressing family-related technology questions, sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the December 9, 2020, print edition as ‘How to Help Your Teen Stay Focused.’

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