What to Do When Your Teen is Failing School and Doesn’t Care
A report card full of D’s and F’s can be upsetting for a parent to see. It’s especially frustrating if it seems like your teen just doesn’t care.
But what do you do?
You can’t force your kid to put their best effort into their schoolwork, and trying to do so may damage your relationship.
On the other hand, teens can’t always grasp how important their high school grades are and what effect they may have on their futures. Parents should do their best to set their kids up for success and rule out any barriers that may be the root cause of their child’s poor school performance.
Ahead, we outline the actions that you can take if your teenager is failing school because of a seeming lack of motivation.
Ask an Expert: What Do I Do if My Kid Doesn't Care About School or Grades?
Connie Collins, a professional school counselor with over 35 years working in education as both a teacher and school counselor, weighs in on how concerned parents should respond to kids or teens who don’t put any effort into school or try to get good grades
Q: My son is in seventh grade and is failing most classes. He has the ability to get As and Bs without much effort, but he doesn't care and either hurries through his homework or just doesn't do it at all.
I've tried punishing him, taking things away, talking with him, and meeting with teachers and counselors, but nothing seems to work. Any ideas on how to get him to care about school and his grades?
A: You say you have talked with his teachers and counselors. Did those meetings result in a plan? Was your son involved in that plan? If the answers are no, I would suggest going back to the school and doing just that.
Is there a set time and place free of TV, computer, stereo, etc. for him to do this homework?
Does he have to use that time reading if he says he doesn't have homework?
Do you or your partner spend some study time with him talking about his work and checking it over?
Where does the homework go when finished – in his folder, in his backpack, near the door?
Many bright seventh-graders have no idea how to organize or how to study. Does he need some help in this area?
You speak of punishment and rewards, but not of consequences. Are they logical and immediate?
What happens if he fails seventh grade? Have you decided as a family and made clear to him that he will be spending summer going to summer school – not on vacation or being with his friends?
That might help put things into perspective and show him that doing well in school impacts other parts of his life.
Set Your Teen up For Success in School
Teenagers aren’t full-fledged adults yet, and they are still developing their executive function skills. Setting up a schedule and a quiet environment for them to study in can go a long way in helping them succeed.
Often a bit of external structure can help your child get a good grade. The resulting feeling may help them develop intrinsic motivation.
- Choose a table in a room free from distractions. If possible, the table should be completely clear of anything but your kid’s work.
- Make a schedule. When is your teen going to work? Should they come home and study first thing after school before they have free time, or will it work better for them to have a snack and some downtime to socialize first? The answer to this will depend on your child. Involve them in this decision.
- Buy a planner. If your teenager doesn’t already have a planner, have them pick one out. Show them how to list out homework and study tasks with a box next to each that they can check off once complete.
Identify the Obstacles
Often what looks like laziness is truly overwhelming. Don’t assume that your child just doesn’t care. When missing assignments snowball, kids can start to feel like they’ll never catch up. Try to figure out what is stopping them from completing their work.
Sit down and have a conversation with your teen, without judgment. Make it very clear that you are not upset and that they are not in trouble.
The goal is to get them to open up to you so that the two of you can get to the bottom of what’s causing their bad grades.
Common obstacles include:
- Volume of reading is too high or the material is too complex
- Foundational math or science skills weren’t mastered so now the more advanced classes aren’t accessible to your child
- Difficulty balancing academics and sports or other activities
- Not enough time to do all the work (might need to prioritize)
- A condition such as ADHD or a learning disability that makes school more challenging
- Mental health needs to be addressed — maybe bullying or another issue is impacting your teen’s self-esteem and needs to be taken care of with professional help before your child can focus properly on academics
“Not caring” can be a coping mechanism for kids who have given up because they have lost their confidence. It’s possible for learning disabilities to show up at an older age, even if they didn’t seem obvious during the elementary years.
Talk to your school counselor about your concerns and they will help you decide whether you want to assess your child. If you do, make sure that your child understands that you don’t think there is anything wrong with them, but you want to learn more about how you and the school can help them.
You might also let them decide whether they want to be assessed.
Possible learning disabilities include:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: affects the ability to focus and executive functioning
- Dyscalculia: difficulty with math and logical thinking
- Dysgraphia: problems with handwriting and spelling
- Dyslexia: affects reading and language processing
Emotional trauma or mental health issues may also be a barrier to your teen’s motivation and academic success.
You should also consider whether they might need therapy or antidepressants to help get them through a difficult time and to support their school achievement.
Use Natural Consequences
Experience is often the best teacher. Try to let your child suffer the natural consequences of failing whenever possible. It can be tempting to swoop in and save our kids at the last minute, but it’s better for them to learn the consequences of their actions while they are young.
It’s better to be stuck in summer school because you didn’t do your work than to be fired from a job at an older age in “real life.”
That being said, natural consequences are not always the safe choice. You don’t want to let your child fail without giving them the support they need. Use your judgment when using natural consequences with teens, and regardless, make sure they know that you are always there for them and that you love them unconditionally.
These strategies are less effective with teens, who are becoming more independent (a good thing!). If it becomes a power struggle, it’s not likely to help motivate your teen to care.
If you say, “You can’t play video games until you have done your homework,” you’re likely to end up with a teen who doesn’t do either and doesn’t care. But if your kid wants to avoid having to repeat a school year of high school, they may decide to do their work on their own.
Set Goals Together
Try sitting down with your teen and coming up with some goals together. Remember, these are your kid’s goals, not yours.
You’ll never be able to force them to get on board with your goals. And you shouldn’t have to. A 14-year-old or 15-year-old kid should be coming up with their own plans for their future.
Start by looking at the long term. What do they want to achieve when they grow up? What options do they want available to them? That’s completely up to them. The next step is to set short-term goals that work towards their long-term goal. his is where you come in.
Your job is to help them see what stepping stones there are along the road to their aspirations. And that might not mean that they need to be a straight-A student or that they need to attend a university instead of a community college. There are many ways for teens to succeed that don’t revolve around their grades.
Remember though — the short-term goals need to align with what your kids want to achieve. Pushing your own narrative won’t get them to care. But supporting their dreams likely will.
Steps for Setting Academic Goals:
- Have your teen come up with one to three long-term goals for their future — where do they want to be in 5 or 10 years?
- Help them come up with short-term goals that lead directly to their long-term goal. For example: focusing on studying for biology class now will help them if they want to become a veterinarian after college
- Figure out what support they need to meet their short-term goals and help them get that support.
- Write out a plan with actionable steps that your teen can check off. We recommend our High School Homework Checklist for Parents.
Check Your Relationship with Your Teen
It’s normal if your relationship with your teen seems to be a bit strained. Teenagers are gaining independence and trying to fit in with their peer’s values. This is all healthy and expected.
That being said, the teenage years are also one of the most important times to nurture your relationship. You want your teen to be able to trust that they can come to you for anything.
Falling grades or apathy about school may be a sign that your teen needs you more than ever. Consider how much quality family time you are spending.
With parents’ and teens’ jam-packed schedules, it’s easy to lose track of that family dinner or find time just to sit and talk.
Even if it’s just in the car on the way to practice, try to carve out some time for you and your teen to be together and enjoy each other’s company.
If your child’s grades are slipping or they seem to have lowered motivation, building a better relationship with you – their parent – can help.
Parental support builds trust so that they feel comfortable telling you about what might be wrong or what they might be struggling with. It also helps to elevate your child’s mood and self-esteem which may have a positive effect on motivation.
Most important of all, ensure that your child knows that you will always love them, no matter their grades.
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