A letter from a small schools head teacher –

I have an 8th grade boy who is quite bright all around. He has mild ADHD. Since I’ve had him in my classroom (this is the third year) he has been difficult to motivate to do school work. I’ve tried everything I can think of: Allowing him to choose the subject matter, choosing and designing his own projects, picking his partners, etc. The end result has often been that he just won’t do it. Sometimes he lies and says that he was really busy the night before, but when I ask his mother she says that they weren’t busy, and that he told her that he had finished his work. Other times he just says, “I didn’t do it.” During the student-led parent-teacher conferences he has said more than once that he would rather be playing video games or watching TV, or hanging out with his family instead of doing his work. Though he is bright, his grades don’t reflect it because he doesn’t produce very much work. It is very frustrating. I’ve tried to motivate him by finding out what he wants to be when he grows up, and telling him how what we are learning will help him become that. I’ve also showed him how not doing his work will be detrimental to his desire to do the job he wants to do. Sometimes that will motivate him a little, but his overall behavior hasn’t changed. I’ve also taught the students about how to study, take notes, keep a portfolio of work, how to have good study habits, when to study, where to study, etc. Again, nothing. So I need advice if you think you can help.
Vexed in California

Dear Vexed,
People are so unique and I don’t want to sound like I have this figured out. Of the options that Mike has been offered (I’ll refer to him as Mike) he is finding his present behavior the most need-satisfying. Why he is choosing this behavior becomes our puzzle to lovingly consider. Several possible areas come to mind.

1) You are doing so many things right on Mike’s behalf. I can tell you are willing to do a great deal to help him. In a way, what you are doing for him is evidence that stimulus-response approaches don’t always work. If stimulus-response theory was true, given all of the right stimuli you are giving him, Mike would be tackling his schoolwork. But for reasons that are unique and important to him, he isn’t. This may sound counterintuitive, but pulling back, combined with developing compassionate boundaries, may be part of the answer. By pulling back I don’t mean giving him the silent treatment or being quietly disgusted at his lack of effort. I just mean conveying to him that you realize you can’t make him do his work, that you will continue to be open to suggestions on what will make the learning better for him, that you will give him feedback on how he is doing, including giving him grades on what he does or doesn’t do, but that it is up to him whether he does the work or not. Try to convey this to him in a warm, sincere tone. Let him know you believe in him and that you have been so caught up in wanting him to succeed that you may have missed something. Admit that you don’t know what it is that you have missed, but that you care about him and hope that he is ok. I would then let the situation go. When he misses an assignment, acknowledge it, but pull back from the normal teacher response. Begin to let him know that he is in the driver’s seat of his life.

I don’t know what is or isn’t happening at home. Somehow his performance at school is tied to quality world pictures he has regarding home. You mentioned that he would rather be hanging out with his family. Does he get very much of that kind of time with the people that are most important to him? Are his parents still together? Divorced?

During one of our interviews I did a word association activity with Glasser. I asked him to quickly respond to words that I would say. One of the words was motivate. He surprised me a bit when he said he wasn’t real fond of the word motivate or motivation. For him the word motivate had a tone of other control, like someone outside of you trying to make you do something. People with high power needs want to call their own shots and decide what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. They often don’t want or need other people motivating them to do things a certain way. People with high freedom needs are very sensitive to feeling pressured. They tend to shut down and drag their feet when they feel that others are trying to make them do something. I haven’t met Mike, but for some reason I have this sense that it might be more about freedom with him, than it is about power. In both cases—whether about power or freedom—your doing exactly the right thing, if the right things were ultimately about motivating him, may be unwittingly contributing to the problem.

2) Keep in mind the developmental needs of a middle school student. It is an essential, yet incredibly complicated, time of life. As he should be, Mike is beginning to separate from the significant adults in his life. He is becoming more aware of his I am-ness. More than ever he needs a sane adult to help him navigate territory that is new to him, to help him deal with thoughts and feelings that he very likely doesn’t know what to do with himself. Middle schoolers are so unique. One moment they are holding a parent’s hand at an event in which they may be scared or shy, the next moment they are acting like they don’t have parents. Her? I’ve never seen her before. Mixing the natural developmental needs I just described with the basic needs and quality world pictures mentioned above can definitely create a challenge. So few in the public have any idea how challenging a teacher’s life can be.

3) Another area that comes to mind is that of the teacher him/herself. As teachers we have a set of basic needs and unique quality world pictures, too. When a student isn’t responding to a lesson I’ve worked hard to create, that experience doesn’t match the quality world picture I have in my head and it doesn’t help me meet my need for power or success. This is natural and there is nothing wrong with that mental process. It is what it is. We just have to remember to be careful to not go into a mode where we are more focused on meeting our need for power than we are of helping students to meet their need for power. It is so easy to go into the BIRG mode. BIRG stands for Basking In Reflected Glory. In other words, when my student or child does well and others see his/her competence shining forth, I can bask in his/her reflected accomplishments. If he/she is doing well it must be because of my parenting or my teaching. It is easy for this way of thinking to become a part of us, but when it does it subtly begins to add elements of toxicity in our relationships. Kids are aware of this dynamic and don’t like it.

Mike is fortunate to have you as his teacher. I want to encourage you as you guide and support him toward healthy independence. I would love to hear about how he is doing in the future. Stay in touch.