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How Can I Motivate My Struggling Child?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


My fourth-grader has been behind since first grade. She reads at 35% of where she should be and still can barely write. Her math is only at about 50%. Despite our best efforts, including tutors for several years, she is still behind. She has no motivation regarding school and doesn't understand why she needs to be able to read or write. Her mom and I are at wit's end to try to get her to understand the importance of school and get her motivated. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


If your daughter has been struggling since first grade, it makes sense that she is discouraged and not feeling very motivated. Children also don't really understand something as abstract as the impact of school performance on their future. They are motivated by their present situations. That experience doesn't sound very satisfying.

I would assume that if she is behind this significantly in several subjects, she's been tested for learning disabilities, and has qualified for special education. If that is not the case, the first step would be to have her evaluated to make sure she is receiving proper instructional support. Your principal and child's teacher should be able to help you start the process.

If she has qualified for special education, than see when her next IEP (Individualized Education Program) is scheduled. It may be time to reassess her, or the approach, if she is not meeting her goals. It would be helpful to have any tutors at the IEP, to determine if they have appropriate training. To reduce your family's stress, make sure everyone's expectations are realistic and that you are working together as a support team.

You can also include broader learning opportunities to increase motivation. Being too focused on goals can be tedious. Explore what subjects interest your daughter and make these more available to her. If she likes polar bears, take a trip to the zoo, rent documentaries or go online for information. Also, outside interests such as dance, sports, art classes, music lessons that she can pursue and feel accomplished at, can be helpful to balance her learning challenges and improve her self esteem.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

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.