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How to Motivate an Underachiever

Here are some ways to encourage your child to live up to their potential.

Christine K’s son Nathan is a bright student. He’s smart enough to calculate the minimum score he needs on his final exams to land a decent grade—instead of investing that effort in achieving an “A.” If that sounds like your child, or if he simply lets schoolwork slide, here are some ways to motivate him to live up to his potential.

Break it Down

Encourage your child to break complex projects into sub-tasks. Lack of effort can be a sign that she is simply overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start. Helping her to see a large assignment as a series of small steps can provide her with a sense of control. Make the first step an easy one. A quick success can give your child the confidence to keep moving forward.

Growth Over Grades

Sometimes a child’s lack of motivation springs from a belief that he doesn’t have the ability to perform better. So, he stops trying. Instead, help him focus on growth, not grades. With each new unit in class, ask what skills he hopes to gain from it. Praise his effort and point out the progress you see him making. According to the digest of the Duke University Talent Identification Program, “Students who believe that their abilities are not innate but have been developed are more likely to attempt challenging tasks.” Remind your child of the abilities he has already developed, as an encouragement to keep growing.

Find Their Rhythm

Assess your child’s energy rhythms. Does she arrive home worn out and in need of a break before tackling homework? Or does she start strong and peter out as the evening progresses? As energy drops, often so does motivation. Challenge your child to tackle her least favorite, or most difficult subjects during her period of highest energy.

Most of all, stick with your child. Model persistence by not giving up on them.

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