By Judy Shepps Battle
"Most of the problems of education are problems of motivation...When a child is self-motivated, the teacher cannot keep him from learning."
C. John Sommerville, "The Rise and Fall of Childhood"
Underachieving students have a significant gap between their ability and what they produce and achieve in school.
This discrepancy may be seen as early as third or fourth grade when a youngster appears to have little trouble reading or understanding mathematics but is late with assignments and makes "sloppy" mistakes on tests.
It is during middle school--sixth to eighth grade-that a pattern of underachievement consistently emerges in both academic and non-academic areas. Not only do report cards reflect poor grades but a youth may show extremes of behavior ranging from withdrawal to defiance.
By high school the label of "underachiever" is often firmly inscribed upon both a school record and an individual psyche. A highly intelligent teen may be denied entrance into honor classes and urged to take either general or vocational classes because of a lackluster middle school performance.
Such a situation easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As one recent high school drop out bitterly noted; " If they give you the name, why not play the game? School gave up on me before I gave up on it."
What Has to Happen?
There is a grain of truth in this young woman's accusation. She challenges us to ask the hard question of what has to happen so that a student who learns and achieves differently can be successful in our school system.
In order to motivate underachieving teens we must help them identify and honor their unique learning styles and passionate interests. For many, this also involves recognizing and removing psychological and environmental obstacles to self-realization.
In the process, both families and schools may need to re-examine assumptions of what "achievement" is and the forms it may take.
Honoring Unique Learning Styles
If we are to motivate adolescents to learn what is in the curriculum, we must honor their learning styles, help them discover their unique abilities, and give them appropriate tools for successful achievement.
Not every person learns in the same way. It is important that each student be given an opportunity to explore a variety of ways to successfully accomplish a homework task or do a term project.
For many, "book learning" is natural but others find this mode difficult. Whether it is because of a learning disorder or neurological difficulties, it is very difficult for such a student to complete an assignment based on reading chapters or taking out a library book on the subject.
The same youngster may do very well exploring a topic using the Internet, video tapes, CDs or even interviewing someone. Instead of writing homework neatly in a spiral notebook, such a student may do better using a camcorder or creating a computer "PowerPoint" presentation.
A third teen may do best with a combination of traditional print methodology and more interactive technology.
The task of the school district is to provide early instruction in using alternative media and to have sufficient resources available so that students get a chance to discover their learning style.
Within each of us is a passion, some item of interest that holds our fascination. When this desire is validated--whether it is skiing or conga dancing-- we eagerly spend time and money to learn whatever new skills may be necessary.
This is especially true for teens. Whether it is how to operate a ham radio, set up a profitable Internet company, or score perfectly on the college admissions test, every youngster has one interest that dominates all others.
Unfortunately, all "passionate interests" do not necessarily fit into a traditional school curriculum. Any teacher can harness the desire of a student to be admitted to an elite college and convert it into an "A" or "B+" student.
But what about a teen who has given up being successful within the school system? One that either does not know or will not freely share their passions with adults?
If we are to motivate an angry or withdrawn underachiever, we must enter his world and find a way to facilitate ownership of those interests. We must encourage her to dream and talk or write or paint or make movies about these visions of success.
This means listening without judgment and offering assistance and support. It means teaching the skills they need to accomplish their goal even if it may mean leaving school or risking financial loss.
Offering unconditional support to a youth increases self-esteem as well as the belief that the world is a good place in which to live. Being willing to mold the school system to the needs of the child is a powerful act of faith in human nature that has a positive effect on both parties.
Becoming willing is the first step in creating change on both a personal and social level. If families and school systems are willing to draw a bigger circle of acceptance around underachieving teens important changes would begin immediately.
Unconditional acceptance coupled with providing tools to succeed - emotional, material, and spiritual - is the best motivator we can offer to kids who have fallen by the wayside.
Copyright 2002 Judy Shepps Battle