How to motivate an apathetic child

How to encourage your apathetic child

Written by Samantha Griebenow

How frustrated do you feel when your child shrugs off the mention of school work and acts as though homework is some sort of foreign entity?

Don’t answer that!

Instead, read on and gain some insights to diffuse the next argument and actually get your child interested in learning again.

What is apathy?

Apathy is defined as a state of impassivity where feelings such as concern, excitement, motivation or passion are neglected. That being the official definition, if your child is apathetic in the face of school work, it will look as though he or she just simply doesn’t care. That little kid who was once a ball of energy and enthusiasm might now be the teenager in your home who slouches around lethargically, claiming school was boring and that there’s definitely no homework to do. Before you pull out your hair, give up or start driving yourself mad with nagging, there is a way to turn apathy around.

Children become apathetic for many reasons:

  • Content is not presented in a relevant manner.
  • Fear of failure.
  • The classroom is not seen as a safe space.
  • Adults do not always treat learners with dignity and respect.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Lack of academic tools to be successful.
  • Peer pressure to be seen as ‘cool’.
  • Learning problems.
  • Lack of challenge.
  • Desire for attention.
  • Emotional distress.
  • Expression of anger.

As a parent, it is incredibly distressing to watch your child descending into apathy. They avoid work, start projects at the last second (if at all), put in minimum effort, avoid challenges and seem completely satisfied with ‘going with the flow’. The core issue is always the same: somewhere along the line this child has lost the belief that accomplishing meaningful tasks is possible. Their apathy is actually a front for feeling frustrated, inadequate, ashamed, confused and downright helpless. Children who are motivated to learn are driven by the strong belief that they actually can learn. Your child needs to feel empowered and capable again.

Apathetic learners need to believe that what they are doing is relevant and that there is an actual connection between content and experience. Being involved and having goals makes a child interested and willing to learn. The key to motivating reluctant learners is encouragement: you need to make your child believe in themselves by validating and supporting their learning.

We often make assumptions when it comes to education. We all expect that children are inherently motivated to learn and have the personal and academic tools available to them to do so. This is often not the case. When a learner has failed (whether it be a test, task, question or exam), that feeling of inadequacy is incredibly difficult to overcome and it starts infiltrating other spheres of life.

So, exactly how do you, as a parent, encourage your apathetic child to reach a new perspective and approach to learning? There is no easy fix, but there are some definite strategies (listed below) that really can work.

1. Promote effort

Remember, a child who feels defeated is using apathy as a defence to mask feeling inadequate. If you start validating effort as opposed to the final outcome (marks), your child will start realising that even doing something is actually worthwhile. Learners who are demotivated believe that no matter what they do, it will not be a success. However, if you encourage them at every juncture of their journey, these small steps will build up to equal one giant leap of faith. If your child has tried, and made a mistake, appreciate the effort and try to focus on this error as a learning curve and not a failed attempt.

If you promote one small change or effort every day, a child will soon learn to make it habitual. Keep attention on the effort rather than the achievement – this will change unmotivated behaviour. Give your child a solid reason for needing to make an effort. Often a written contract of commitment followed by a celebratory outcome works – children want to be taken seriously; what says serious commitment more than a binding contract?

2. Respect their abilities

Children desperately want to feel that they are in control. Let’s be real though – don’t we all? Giving children power can go a long way. A lot of children feel powerful when refusing to work as it is their decision. By refusing to work, control is restored in the eyes of a child. It is a sure fire way not to fail – simply don’t work and then you can’t be held accountable for a lack of achievement. It becomes very difficult not to take this denial personally; you start to wonder if you went wrong. However, you must keep seeing this as your child’s issue and respect what they are trying to say. Allow them to feel that they are making appropriate choices of their own and include them in decision-making. Challenge your child by all means, but in a respectful and not detrimental manner. Something as simple as asking for their opinion will mean a lot.

By giving your child a semblance of control or independence, it helps to show them that they are capable. If you credit your child’s success to skills they have, this confidence will manifest as effort. Offer your child real choices so that it is not a command given, but a democratic decision which empowers them. Try not to offer too many incentives as the end goal; this is not going to teach self-motivation but rather an attitude of self-gain.

3. Hope is key

Children who are apathetic have lost hope in themselves. They don’t feel that they are capable. If you can show your child that what they are doing is meaningful and that the path to achievement is accessible, this hope will ensure effort. All babies are curious and eager to learn; this positive approach to life can be rekindled. Help your child to set short term and long term goals – it makes life more manageable if small steps are mastered. The best way to instill the desire to succeed is by example. Acknowledge when you make a mistake and show how you learn from it. This makes your child feel comfortable and not pressured when mistakes are made.

4. Time management

You must assist your child with time management. Do not assume that they know how to organise and prioritise. Equip them with skills and watch as they flourish. Always pay attention to the process as more important than the end result. This allows for small mistakes to be made without making the end goal seem impossible.

A real-world scenario that incorporates these three strategies would be to set up a commitment plan where your child puts their short term goals into writing. Make sure that the long term goal is attached to a skill and a celebration plan (this brings out the fun and serious elements of the learning process). Your child must be part of the decision-making and they should choose what outcomes are relevant or not. Positively affirm your child with every small effort and maintain this hopeful approach to the end. As part of the ‘contract’, add a study/ homework timetable so that time management strategies are in place. Remember to keep the process relevant at all times and acknowledge the glitches as opportunities.

No matter how much your child pushes back, remember that learning is actually built into us all. It is because of doubt that we often feel the need to act as though we are thoroughly uninterested. Everyone puts up a defence of some sort, but fighting, nagging, pleading and shouting will not change apathy. Positive approaches which centre around effort, power and hope will get your child back on the enthusiasm train; allow for a few derailing situations but always get your child back on track and let them be the conductor of their own journey.

Resources/ acknowledgements:

Discipline With Dignity for Challenging Youth – Richard Curwin, ‎Allen Mendler – 2004

The Author - Samantha Griebenow

WorksheetCloud is the most exciting way to study for exams and tests!

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