Care and Feeding

My Teen Has Lost All Motivation

How can I help him?

A teenage boy zones out while staring at his laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AndreaAstes/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Siwasan/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I’m looking for some advice on how to get my ninth-grade boy motivated to do his homework? He used to love his schoolwork through primary school, but since he started high school, he’s been in a downward spiral. (Granted, starting a new high school during the pandemic has not helped.) He is in advanced classes and very capable, but he’s just not willing to do the work, which is the frustrating part. He lacks motivation, avoids homework, doesn’t ask for help and has been asking to move schools. He has a handful of friends in school but says they are not true friends, just people he can “hang out” with at break. (His true friends are outside of school).

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We don’t want to move him to another school as he’s in a very good school, and we’ve told him the grass is not always greener on the other side. It’s heartbreaking to see him like this, and I’m not sure what the answer is. We have talked to the school and they are surprised about how he feels, since things are fine socially from what they see. He is active and sociable outside of school. Maybe moving him is the answer?

—Needing a Jumpstart

Dear Jumpstart,

Freshman year can be a difficult transition for boys and girls alike. High schools are typically much larger than middle schools and the classes are often more challenging.

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That said, I wonder what the actual issue is here. Is your son unmotivated because he’s unhappy? Would he be academically successful if he switched schools? Or would he be equally unmotivated in a new school? What is most important to you—that he feels happy or that he improves his grades?

I cannot say whether or not switching schools is the answer to solving his lack of motivation or loneliness. I think you and your co-parent should have a long talk about what is most important to you, and which school aligns best with those values. Once you’ve established your values, they will help guide you in deciding what to do.

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There’s not necessarily a right or a wrong answer here. For me personally, sending my daughter to her neighborhood school is very important. I want her to go to school with kids who live nearby to foster friendship and a sense of community. I also do not want to have to drive a long way to school each day. I love that we ride our bikes to school as a family each morning.  However, another parent may prioritize different values, such as a particular program or unique services that a school offers. The “right” choice is the one that best aligns with your values.

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So figure out what those are, and act accordingly. I wish you luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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We have two children, a daughter in second grade and a son who’s in pre-K, and I’m looking for advice on transitioning kids from public school to private school in the fall.

For background, we have waffled over this decision (me: guilt over pulling our second grader out of her current school; husband: the money). However, there are several things we (mostly I) do not love about our school district. The new school is equidistant to the public school.

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Our second grader loves school. She has many friends and excels at school. We’ve taken her to visit the new school, and she’s done shadow days there. She loved it, but she says repeatedly, “I don’t want to leave my school.”

How would you explain it to your child why you want them to go to a new school? I’ve tried simple things like, “The day is shorter! You’ll be outside for at least an hour each day, instead of just 15 minutes max! You’ll get to have science class every day!”

These are two of the reasons I want to move her—there is no science curriculum until middle school, and outdoor recess is a maximum of 15 minutes per day. Most importantly, I like the education quality of the private school, and having an opportunity to learn where educators aren’t “teaching to test” is huge.

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I am hoping that summer break will make for an easier transition, but the mom guilt is creeping up on this one. For perspective, my parents scraped, sacrificed, and struggled to send my sister and me to a private elementary school; my husband attended a rural public school.

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—Trepidating Transitions

Dear TT,

School transitions are never easy, especially for young children who enjoy their current school. But it seems that you’ve made up your mind, and in those situations, it may be best to rip off the band-aid. It’s good to remember that while your daughter doesn’t want to leave her current school, she doesn’t seem to dislike the new school. (Remember, too, that kids at this age are very resilient.) From what you’ve told me about your daughter I believe she will thrive in whatever environment she’s in.

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That said, there are some simple things you as a parent could do to make the transition easier. I’d begin by asking her what she really likes about her current school. In your letter you listed what you are excited about in the new school, but are those things your daughter is excited about as well? By finding out what she loves about her current school, you can find ways to replicate the experience. For example, it’s likely that one thing she loves about her current school is her friends. In this case, you could reassure her that she will still be able to keep her old friends and see them at playdates and activities. Taking this approach may help her see that this transition may end up being the best of both worlds.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

My daughter is in middle school. Her science teacher seems to be an anti-masker. I don’t care what he does in his free time, but he brings it into the classroom: He told the class to stop reminding him to put his mask over his nose. He wasted an entire class period complaining about how masks restrict his oxygen or some such baloney. He has repeatedly tried to get the class to take their masks off, both as a group and individually!

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We have complained multiple times to the school nurse, who said she would talk to him but nothing changed, and to the principal, who said that he wouldn’t do anything because we didn’t take the first step of talking to the teacher directly. We don’t want to talk to him directly because it seems obvious he’s not going to change his behavior just because we ask, and because we don’t want our student to be retaliated against. What can we do?

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—Get With the Program

Dear GWtP,

Oof, there’s so much wrong with his behavior, and it’s compounded by the fact that he’s a science teacher. He’s supposed to teach the kids to follow the scientific method and rely on data to draw conclusions. Instead, he seems to subscribe, at best, to his feelings and, at worst, to conspiracy theories.

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I almost always advocate speaking to the teacher directly. Retaliation is not as common a practice as parents imagine. This science teacher sounds like a pill, but I think he would benefit from hearing directly from parents, especially if you could approach him in a way that would foster listening. Is there anything positive you can say about his class? If you start with that, it might open his ears a bit. Then you might say something like, “As a science teacher, you certainly understand the science behind masking, yet I’ve heard you don’t advocate for them. Why is that?” Try to appear curious, rather than irate.

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If things don’t change, go back to the principal (who should’ve handled your request regardless, by the way), and report that you’ve taken the first step with no success.

Alas, masking protocols are getting lifted right and left so this advice might be moot, but perhaps the science teacher will learn his lesson before the next pandemic.

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—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

I have two children (a second grader and a fifth grader) at a large public elementary school in a large city. On our walk to school my second grader mentioned that their class hadn’t had social studies in a month. I was surprised because social studies was a large part of my fifth grader’s second-grade experience (they had a different teacher at the same school). I started asking questions about what they did during the day not out of concern about them missing social studies, but to hear what they were focusing on instead. According to my second grader, the teacher uses the two longest periods of the day (30-40 minutes each) for independent study— reader’s workshop and quiet time. This feels like a lot of time for second graders to have to stay quiet and focused on independent work.

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My understanding of reader’s workshop is that it’s a time to introduce the students to different types of books (fiction, non-fiction, serial books, mystery books, etc.) and to let them work on independent reading. But my child isn’t at the point where they can read silently and independently. In first grade, my child’s teacher used this time to work in small groups with the children who continued to struggle with reading. According to my child, this is not the case with the second grade teacher; they use the time more as a silent reading and prep period.

My child is also receiving reading support outside of the class 3 times a week, so I asked if the teacher uses either of these times to review materials that were covered while they were out, and it appears they do not. Instead, the teacher has my child work with other students to learn the materials, while the teacher focuses on other work.

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While none of these things on their own is especially concerning to me, taken all together, it feels like there is something lacking. I’d like to know, are my expectations regarding how much interaction my child’s teacher should be having with their students during the day off? Is it normal to give second graders so much “independent work” time? Also, parent-teacher conferences are coming up and I want to talk about the specific support my child is receiving in the classroom to make up for their gaps, but want to do it in a respectful and productive way. I’d love any suggestions you may have on how to do this. Thanks.

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—Too Much Time on Their Hands

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Dear TMToTH,

What you describe admittedly sounds lacking in terms of focused, targeted instruction addressing your child’s specific needs, but I also know that children often misunderstand and fail to accurately report the goings-on in a classroom.

Back in September, I told my students that at the end of October, I would miss a week of school for a routine surgery.  That evening, I received an angry email from a parent, asking why she hadn’t been told that I was leaving for three months starting on Monday. Children are unreliable reporters.

A now-retired kindergarten teacher in my school was famous for telling parents, “You believe half of what they tell you, and I’ll believe half of what they tell me.”

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I’d approach the parent-teacher conference with an open mind and lots of questions. Ask the teacher for some specificity around your child’s reading instruction. What skills are being targeted? How is the instruction being delivered on a daily basis? What kind of progress are you seeing in terms of reading? How does my child spend her time during reader’s workshop? Gather information. Seek clarity. Eliminate assumptions.

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Then, if it sounds like your child’s experience during reader’s workshop is more independent than you think is wise, ask the teacher for her rationale behind such decisions. Express your concerns. Ask if it’s possible to modify the approach.

Giving the teacher an opportunity to describe her methods and rationale will likely cause your concerns and requests to be better received.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

More Advice From Slate

I live in a large city and am lucky to have the choice of multiple different public elementary school options. My child will be entering kindergarten, and it’s the time of year where I’m supposed to attend open houses and put together a ranked list of my preferences for a school choice. Apart from the obvious differences, like physical building features or different art/music/after-school program offerings, I am at a total loss for what I should be looking for to compare these schools. What kinds of questions should I be asking the principals and prospective teachers?

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