My son is twelve going on thirteen and is in the seventh grade. I understand seventh grade is a difficult adjustment, however he simply refuses to do his classwork and homework. He has been tested for learning disabilities as well as emotional problems, but was declared a bright and healthy young teen—both emotionally and physically. We have tried many methods of both punishment and rewards systems, but nothing seems to work. He simply refuses to do his work in class and at home, and he only does his homework when I am watching him. This method is not helping anyone. Additionally, his attitude toward school has greatly affected his ability to make friends and connect with his peers; his grades are so poor, he has been prevented from joining social clubs and activities. I am truly at a loss as to how I can help him achieve success in life. What would you suggest?
At Wit’s End
Dear At Wit’s End,
In my experience, one of the biggest contributing factors to why you feel so stuck is that you don’t know why you’re stuck! And you don’t know if it’s something he’ll eventually grow out of or even how long it might last. For me, it’s actually the worst kind of stuck. It feels so frustrating because no matter what you try, nothing seems to change. This feeling is compounded by the fact that this problem is not inconsequential—it’s his education.
First of all, when you find yourself in this type of situation, you need to resist the temptation to jump from solution to solution. You try something, it doesn’t work, so on to the next idea until finally, you feel your only option is to administer consequences in increasingly creative, and severe, ways. Now you’ve entered The Escalation Zone!
Now, what to do. I’d submit that these types of situations require a second or third look at what is driving the person’s actions. Our assumptions are often partially, and sometimes completely, wrong. As a result, our solutions and remedies fall short, leaving us frustrated. These types of situations are well suited to the Six Sources of Influence™.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the model, it’s based on the idea that in order for people to do something, they have to be both motivated and able—they have to want to do it, and know how or be able to do it. We’ve found this very useful in understanding behavior choice. The Six Source Model helps us examine those two conditions at three levels: Personal, Social, and Structural. A close examination of all six of these sources of influence helps us be more effective. We can expand our view of why people do what they do and consider factors outside of those we naturally gravitate toward when diagnosing.
So, here is a quick run down of the sources and how each might be contributing to the problem:
Source 1: Personal Motivation. This source assesses the intrinsic motivators that affect behavior choice. So, does this your son find value in or derive satisfaction from doing schoolwork? It sounds like from your comments the answer is a big “NO!” And before you start to think, “Tell me something I don’t already know,” let me say that there is a catch to this source that can be tricky. If a person is facing significant barriers over a long period of time, their overall frustration builds up to the point that it boils over into personal motivation. So an, “I hate this,” might not really be an “I hate this.” Hmmm. On to Source 2 for a little more explanation.
Source 2: Personal Ability. With Source 2, examine the skills, knowledge, and overall wherewithal a person has to engage in any given behavior. The sad truth is that when people feel like they aren’t able to do something, it affects their motivation—they start to like it less.
I was working on a literacy project many years ago in Tennessee. We researched causes of illiteracy and found that those who rated reading very low as an activity they enjoyed also indicated that they didn’t know how to read. Years of not being able to read affected their overall feelings toward the activity. We also discovered that if we worked on their reading skills, they found the activity much more enjoyable. So maybe your son doesn’t have good study skills (how to take notes, skim vs read, etc.), or doesn’t do as well with organization and prioritization skills.
Sources 3 & 4: Social Motivation and Ability. How are other people affecting him? Does he have new friends that encourage or discourage certain behaviors? Does he need help from a tutor? What impact are you, his family, having on him? In our house, we realized that when one of our sons (the oldest) said negative things about schoolwork, the youngest started to do the same.
Source 5: Structural Motivation. In source 5, we take a look at incentives and punishments. As parents, we tend to rely on these too heavily when it comes to getting our children to do what we want them to do. I know that I’ve relied far too often on punishment to teach my kids what I hope they learn instead of coaching and training.
When it comes to this source, I’d encourage you to think of how to use rewards also. For example, we used to get our kids to identify something they enjoy doing like playing a board game. They could use this to reward themselves for staying on task.
Source 6: Structural Ability. Here we look at the tools and resources a person has versus those he or she might need. Is there a system, or method that your son would benefit from? Is there a structure or schedule that would get him to perform better?
And while all of the solutions cited above are good ideas, the best and most effective ideas are those that address the barriers the individual person—in this case your son—is facing. Even though you’ve already done an analysis, it can be useful to look again to make sure the root causes aren’t being masked by something else.
Now, you will probably find that those whom you are trying to influence also face barriers from each of these sources. This is a fairly common occurrence. But many of us, when faced with multi-faceted barriers, look to only one source of influence for solutions. Instead, try implementing solutions from the sources you diagnosed as “at risk” concurrently and see what happens—especially with challenges that seem intractable and insurmountable.
Good luck, and may the “source” be with you!
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive more like this in your inbox each week!