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Effective Rewards

Elementary School Expert Advice from Barbara Potts

Q: My ten-year-old fifth-grader cannot motivate himself to try his best in both school and sports activities. It can take him hours to complete his homework assignments because he keeps going back to make corrections.. It can take him up to four hours to study for a test. He's been tested for a learning disability and nothing was found. His current teacher feels he is very capable of doing much better, and she says he is inattentive and does not follow directions in class.

He has been rewarded for bringing home scores of 85 percent and above, and he receives a consequence for lower scores. He has a daily checklist that includes the activities he needs to complete: homework, practicing his instrument, making his bed, brushing his teeth, and getting his lunch and school clothes ready for the following day. His consequences for not completing the list are no TV, no Nintendo, and no friends. He still doesn't care, and nothing seems to work. Any suggestions?

A: You are trying all of the standard suggestions for dealing with these issues, and your efforts with the checklist and with helping your son to organize are to be applauded. You don't mention, however, involving your son in helping to designate the rewards he's willing to work for. Perhaps there could be a big goal, such as going on a camping trip or joining a Boy Scout troop, for which he would be interested in earning points for completing his work..

You may also want to use his sports involvement as a reward to work towards. For example, your son may have no team involvement unless he earns it; he may join a soccer team if he has all A's and B's on his interim report card; and he may go to practice if he has his homework completed in time.

Try changing the routine for studying at home. What would happen if he turned in homework without going back constantly to make corrections? His grade might be lower, but that's a logical consequence of making mistakes. When he has a test scheduled, study with him for 15-20 minutes each night for the week preceding the test instead of him trying to do it all in one or two nights.

Since his inattention and focus problems have been ongoing for a couple of years now, you may want to talk with your pediatrician to find out if your son may be experiencing negative consequences for something over which he has little control.

More on: Expert Advice

Barbara Potts has worked as an elementary school counselor for many years. She has a BA in psychology from Wake Forest University, and an M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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