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An Uncooperative Child
Q: My sixth-grade son's grades have progressively gotten worse. We told him that he needed to bring them up, or he would be attending summer school instead of going on vacation with the family this summer. He's capable of doing the work, but is lazy. His teachers are sending home a folder letting me know if there is homework, tests, etc., so that I know what's going on. But he doesn't always bring the folder home. When he forgets to bring his assignments home, he gets punished (no TV). He has gone from As and Bs to Ds and Fs, and nothing seems to help. He just doesn't seem to care.
I really don't want to exclude him from our vacation, but if his grades are this bad, he may actually not pass this year. He is a good kid otherwise and his friends are all straight-A students. He recently started lying -- calling me up at work and telling me that he didn't bring home his notebook because the school ran out of paper. What should I do?
A: Your efforts to address your son's behavior -- but not discover what has caused the change in his performance -- leaves you frustrated and fearful. Start from the top once again.
Identify what factors are causing his behavior: Does he want to escape the pressures to perform? Does he feel he cannot measure up, so why try? Does he feel he cannot compete with his peers? Does he lack the required basic skills to do the work? Does he want to exert power over a situation, but lack the opportunity to be powerful except in the realm of academic work?
These are just a few of the questions you need to address. Based on your findings, you can then chart a better course of action:
- Establish clear expectations for your son and stick to those standards. Don't settle for less.
- Plan a structured and supervised study routine each night. If you can't provide the structure, find a tutorial program where he can be held accountable for his behaviors.
- Do not threaten a punishment you don't intend to carry out. Bite your tongue rather than utter a threat you have no intention nor ability to follow through with.
- Plan a summer-school program or just begin reviewing the past year's schoolwork in August. Build practice and consistent expectations into every task he does.
- Search for opportunities for him to engage in service projects or meaningful activities where he can feel important and needed.
- Make the punishment fit the crime and do not use long-term grounding. It is too easy to just give up or become angry and not really deal with the issues at the root of the problem.
- Meet with the school counselor and teachers to discuss what has worked for other students in the past and don't just focus on his lack of progress.
If you notice any signs of depression, check with your doctor. Poor eating, lack of exercise, and lack of motivation can indicate physical or emotional problems that may require interventions to correct. Observe your son carefully. Find opportunities to do things together without reference to school or his lack of success. Listen to his concerns, if he's willing to discuss them. Let him know you have faith in him to do what is needed. You are there to support, not just punish.
Keep your focus on the long term and do not feel discouraged by the current situation. This too shall pass if you make good decisions now.
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Judith Lee Ladd is a former president of the American School Counselor Association, a national organization of K-12 and post-secondary school counselors.