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Ask the Experts

My Child Doesn't Care About Her Grades

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My daughter has no motivation to do well in school. She loves going to school and loves math and science. But when it comes to getting good grades or even completing homework, she couldn't care less.

Whenever I try to help her with her homework, she "plays dumb" and then I get frustrated and send her to her room. One example of this is when I spent an hour and a half trying to explain how to borrow for math problems. She couldn't even get the right answer for the simple subtraction parts. I finally got so mad that I sent her to her room. She came out five minutes later with all 30 problems done, with no help from me.

In first grade the school wanted to send her back to kindergarten because for the first three weeks she did not do a single assignment. I had to beg her to start doing her work. It seems like money is the only way to motivate her, but I want her to enjoy doing well and to want to do it for herself. Please help me!

Answer:

Your concern is understandable. Because this seems to be a recurring problem, though, it's time to try a different approach. Start by talking with your daughter's teacher and find out if the same behaviors are showing up in the classroom. Does your daughter do her in-class work without problems, or is she failing to turn in assignments? Is she daydreaming, acting out or otherwise disengaged from learning? It's possible that your child is masking an undiagnosed learning disorder or attention disorder by simply not doing her work. If so, talk with the teacher about having her evaluated by the school psychologist, and check with your pediatrician about other possible health issues.

If your daughter is completing her work without difficulty at school, then the problem may simply be that your child has learned to manipulate you. You may have inadvertently reinforced your daughter's poor work habits by giving her too much attention. It may be that she "plays dumb" to keep you engaged. Create some firm rules for homework, review them with your daughter and stick to them. It is her homework, not yours. Work should come before pleasure, so no TV, video games or toys until homework is completed. Provide a quiet area free of distractions and set a timer for 20-minute work periods, if necessary, with breaks in between. You can provide help when absolutely necessary, but keep it brief and then walk away. Remember that homework usually involves material already learned in the classroom, not new concepts.

Finally, be careful about rewarding grades or work completion with tangibles, such as money. If the goal is for your daughter to develop intrinsic motivation, then paying her for work can backfire. If you absolutely need to use tangibles, make them harder to earn as the weeks go by. In other words, she will need to produce more to get the same reward.

Try praising her for effort, instead of outcome. Ask her what she likes about school, as well as what she dislikes. Ask about her peer relationships, and about extracurricular activities. Talk about things other than her grades, and you may gain some insight into her feelings and behaviors.

If these tactics don't help, you may want to consult the school counselor or a private therapist to explore your daughter's lack of interest in school.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/24/2012:
"My daughter is in first grade & refuses to do her work at school.She has trouble staying on task & finishing her work.We have taken stuff away,spanking,timeout nothing seems to faze her.You ask her why don,t you do your work & she doesn't now why.They send home the work she doesn't do at school for homework & I can't get her to do it eighter.I don't know what else to do! "
02/22/2010:
"I was amazed to read your paragraph about using tangibles to motivate. How would you, or any adult, respond to the news that her company intended to 'make [the tangible rewards] harder to earn as the weeks go by. In other words, she will need to produce more to get the same reward.' This is so counter-intuitive to every corporate program I know. Please help me understand what logic you are using. I'm currently writing a book for teenagers who want to avoid their parents mistakes. And this seems like a perfect example of the sort of mistaken thinking I'm advising the kids to dump from their minds. "
10/9/2008:
"My daughter has started Middles School. She is in 6th Grade. I have almost given my life to help her out with her school work. Her teachers complaints she does not pay attention, at the school. When she come home all she does is struggling with her home work. She is a intelligent kid. Everynight we go to bed after a argument. I get really mad and annoyed to face this situation. How can I be patient with her? and how can I encourage her to education Mom"
12/14/2007:
"I have a child that has been diagnosed as ADHD. The school started a 504 plan but I have not seen any results. He's in a class room with about 20 kids. A lot of distractions. What should I do to get him more help?"
12/13/2007:
"I disagree with homework being done before any fun things occur. After being at work all day, I know I don't plunge directly into MORE work, I need a break. I had a problem with my son doing his homework about this age. He refused to do it until 8 pm. I decided to flow with it and see if he would actually do it. If I mentioned it was time for homework a few minutes before his chosen time, he would remind me he did it at 8pm. If I went into his room at 8pm, he indeed would be doing his homework. He also had a rough start in school, but is now in college doing his homework without my help."
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