How to Help Teenagers Stay Motivated at School

7 minute read
Damour is the author of three New York Times best sellers: Untangled, Under Pressure, and The Emotional Lives of Teenagers. She co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast, works in collaboration with UNICEF, and is recognized as a thought leader by the American Psychological Association

Before adolescence, kids generally like school. But I think it’s fair to say that if each household were to create a pie chart titled “Stuff Our Teen Complains About,” the biggest slice in most homes would be labeled “School.” To be sure, there’s plenty about school that teenagers do like, such as being with their friends, enjoying particular courses, and spending time with devoted teachers and coaches who truly care for them and don’t try to hide it. But the fact of the matter is that school, by nature, often cuts across the adolescent grain. Teens bristle at having to submit to adult authority all day long, and just when they are working to develop their own freestanding and well-defined identity, they’re herded into classes that often don’t align with their rapidly crystalizing sense of themselves. Teenagers crave independence, but they often have loads of homework that prevent them from spending their evenings and weekends the way they want to.

How can adults help adolescents manage the mismatch between their normal drive for autonomy, identity, and independence, and what school asks of them? As a clinical psychologist who has long specialized in caring for adolescents, I’ve come to believe we’re most useful when we bear in mind that sending our teens to school is like sending them to a buffet where they are required to try everything being served.

As adults, many of us have figured out what we like and what we don’t, and we select for ourselves accordingly. In my case, I happily consume psychology all day and haven’t had a bite of physics since I was seventeen. Teenagers, however, must consume everything on the menu. There is no way they will like all of it, and we should not expect that they will.

It’s perfectly okay to require teenagers to dig into everything, in part because they may discover aspects of school that they end up, thanks to inspired teaching or their maturing interests, liking far more than they expected to. We should encourage them to be open to the possibility that they might enjoy a class they don’t want to take or an experience they weren’t looking forward to. Still, students will have their preferences, and when we acknowledge them and talk openly about them, we are better positioned to help teens maintain motivation at school.

Read More: How to Help Teens Find Purpose Amid The Mental Health Crisis

Consider a common scenario: A teenager who strongly dislikes a class and as a result is significantly underperforming in it. Though our instincts might tempt us to tell such a teen to “fix his attitude,” it’s usually more helpful to start with a matter-of-fact conversation about the nature of school. “I get it,” you might say, “that you feel about English class right now the way I feel about beets. I eat them only when I have to, which, as an adult, is almost never.” From there, you can point out that even if your teen can’t stand this subject, selective high schools and colleges, scholarship committees, and future employers are usually at least as interested in students’ grades as in their passions. Teens don’t have to like all of their classes, but they may need to find ways to make unappealing classes palatable enough to get a decent grade.

Sometimes teens need our help to get unstuck. For some, simply offering validation can be enough to fix the problem. For others who need more, framing their underperformance as an issue of taste, as opposed to a shortcoming in character, can lead to productive conversations about what might help them be more open to what’s being served. Would they like, for instance, to try working with a study buddy, or to look online for videos about what they’re learning? If you suspect that there may be a significant barrier at work, consult with your teen’s teachers or guidance counselors to find a solution that addresses the problem while keeping shame out of it.

Our tastes also often change over time. I took little interest in history back when I was in high school, but I now read it every night before bed. In talking with our teenagers, we can encourage them to be open to the possibility that they may, at some point in the future, take an interest in a subject that doesn’t appeal right now.

What about the adolescent who doesn’t like anything about middle or high school? This happens. School focuses on a very narrow range of topics and skills, and it is not at all unusual for a student to plod through a conventional education, yet be poised to thrive in a career that is not rooted in traditional schooling. If this is your teenager, here are three things you should consider doing:

First, support your teen’s interests where they lie. Does your teenager feel indifferent about her classes but have a hearty appetite for working with her hands? Find an in-school or after-school program that helps her build those skills. Does he take only sparing bites of the standard subjects but produce music on his own time? Then look for classes, jobs, or other opportunities to feed that interest. It’s a lot easier for students to feel motivated when they are given work that connects to their personal goals and in which they feel confident they can succeed.

Second, go out of your way to empathize with the fact that it’s no fun to spend days, nights, and weekends consuming unappealing fare. Appreciate the effort that your teenager does put into school and recognize that doing so may not come easily or naturally.

Third, get help from a school counselor or other mental health professional. Healthy teenagers tend to cultivate strong interests, even if those interests aren’t academic. If that isn’t happening, you’ll want to address the possibility of a broader mental health concern.

We should also pay attention to highly conscientious teenagers who feel compelled to devour every scrap of what’s served. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with students enthusiastically partaking in all that school has to offer. But learning can become unnecessarily stressful for teenagers who feel the need to excel on every assignment in every course. To combat needless perfectionism, we can let teenagers know that we do not expect them to like every subject, or to like all of their classes equally. If, for example, they love math and want to spend extra time on it, we can cheer them on. But for classes that don’t appeal to them, we should encourage teens to do as much as they need, whether for a high enough grade or deep enough mastery, while protecting their time and energy for other things—like sleep and having fun.

Allowing teens to think of school as a compulsory buffet won’t address every academic problem, but it can help them maintain their motivation when faced with subjects or assignments they would never pursue on their own. Adopting the neutral, shame-free stance that teens won’t always like what’s being served up at school—and offering them our empathic and strategic support—can go a long way toward making it easier for them to dig in.

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