How to Help a Disintegrating Student
Why are our some of our brightest, most capable students falling apart in high school? Of course they aren't literally disintegrating and breaking apart, but figuratively speaking that's exactly what appears to be happening. In my academic coaching I expect to see struggling students, but I am surprised to find that the majority of the students who come for help are overwhelmingly high-functioning, high-achieving students. What gives? These bright, motivated, successful students start to break down, disintegrate, right before our eyes. So what does that look like?
What do I mean by disintegrating students? No, they weren't literally breaking down and falling apart, but figuratively speaking that's exactly what appeared to be happening. In my academic coaching I expected to see struggling students, but I was surprised to find instead that the majority of my student clients were exceptionally high-functioning, high-achieving students. What gives? These bright, motivated, successful students start to break down, disintegrate, right before our eyes. So what does that look like?
These bright, motivated, successful students start to break down, disintegrate, right before our eyes.
Meet Kyle. Kyle couldn't wait to start school like his older sister and loved every bit of elementary school, mastering material with little effort. As long as Kyle was in school he seemed to learn through osmosis and mere exposure. He typically got his homework done in class or on the bus and rarely, if ever, studied for tests. Kyle breezed through elementary school, but by the end of middle school his parents had started to notice a change. Kyle's grades started to show signs of inconsistency due to his lack of preparation or studying and he was showing signs of frustration with the school work, teachers and peers. By the tenth grade, Kyle hit a wall. Taking a full load of high rigor honors and AP courses, along with his extracurriculars of baseball and student council, his tension and frustration reached critical mass. As is often the case, this was around the time Kyle's parents really began to worry about his grades and well-being. Was this just an adolescent phase or something more? The more they kept on him about upcoming assignments, quizzes and tests, the more Kyle pushed back and withdrew from them. Where did his motivation go? Why was he so lazy all of sudden? Doesn't he care about his future and getting into college? Where did our Kyle go?
No surprise that what typically gets parents' attention is a drop in grades. Suddenly your once conscientious A student is not turning in homework, failing quizzes and seems generally disengaged with school. This, of course, can become a huge point of contention between concerned and anxious parents and an overwhelmed adolescent, resulting in constant arguing and a battle of wills. Teens seek to escape these confrontations by any means available - their bedroom, basement, a friends' house...basically anywhere the parent is not.
Suddenly your once conscientious 'A' student is not turning in homework, failing quizzes and seems generally disengaged with school.
So why would a once happy, confident and successful student disintegrated into a seemingly disinterested, non-compliant, underachieving student? The answer is that many students simply don't know HOW to manage the rigor of their courses and schedule. The problem is made worse by students not even realizing that's the issue, but rather believing that they are no longer the "smart kid" they once were. This thinking mindset goes along the lines of "if I were smart, I'd be able to figure this out" or "if I ask, then everyone will know that I'm not smart anymore". So it becomes a matter of protecting their self-concept of "being smart". But in doing so they are self-handicapping to mask that they need help rather than asking for it.
Why does this happen? First, it's important to note that it doesn't happen to all high-achieving kids, but it is quite common, particularly when they have internalized the message from the school, teachers, parents and even their peers, that it's important to do well if you want to get into a good college, get a scholarship and achieve success. What they hear is "you need to do everything...and do everything perfectly". Of course, that's not what's explicitly being said, but to them it is the general message. Take a moment and think about trying to live up to that standard day in and day out. Personally, I wake up every morning and consider what I can "phone in" and where my focus and energy is best served. I don't believe many of students feel like they have that option. It's 100% or nothing...all the time.
What they hear is
"you need to do everything...and do everything perfectly".
So how do we help a student we suspect is in the process of disintegrating? Here are three factors to address to start to turn things around: Control, Information and Communication.
Control - Lack of autonomy is one of the biggest killers of motivation. Students who feel like they have little control over their decisions and who perceive they have little choice in their life lose confidence and, with that, their motivation. Re-evaluate your current expectations for your child. What are you doing for them that they could be doing for themselves? Waking them up? Packing their lunch? Doing their laundry? Coming to the rescue when they forget something? I know, they're already busy, overwhelmed (and a bit scary to approach sometimes), but by trying to help them by doing for them we actually end up sending the message that we don't think that they're capable of doing it. Will they balk when you stop and begin expecting them to start doing for themselves? Oh heck yeah they will! But if you hold your ground, let natural consequences do their magic and let your child experience the satisfaction of doing things for themselves and contributing to the family by upholding their responsibilities you will see a more confident and motivated child.
Information - Once students understand that NOTHING has happened to their intelligence and what they need is to LEARN and apply new skills this removes the threat to their self-esteem. They can learn and apply new skills! This is what I focus on with students. Helping them to identify where there are skill gaps...is it time management, organization, planning, goal setting, study skills, note-taking, sleep hygiene, stress management or, typically, some combination thereof. Understanding the how and why to try a new approach is so empowering which also fuels motivation.
Communication - Teens and parents have notoriously poor communication. Part of this stems from what's happening in the developing brain of adolescents. Emotions rule in the teen brain and as a result teens actually tend to misinterpret facial expressions. Neutral, even happy faces, are oftentimes confused in the teen's brain as being angry. Maybe you've had the experience when you say something to your teenager in a very matter-of-fact way and they respond by telling you to calm down, stop getting so mad! Unfortunately, when this happens parents may get defensive and then not-so-matter-of-factly lash back starting what came to be called a Planet of the Apes moment in my family. There are no easy answers here. But, making a conscious effort to share your thoughts and expectations explicitly and clearly will go a long way to help prevent miscommunications and misunderstandings. More often than not, the stories that parents and teens are telling themselves about what the other thinks or believes just do not match up. Communication is also enhanced when we understand our own and our child's personality types. In fact, that's such a game-changer that I will be dedicating a separate blog post to it.
So, if you see signs of your child beginning to disintegrate think about where you can incorporate some of these changes to start to help them regain their confidence and motivation. And, always keep in mind that progress is more important than perfection.
This article was originally published by The Balanced Student, LLC and reprinted here with permission. © 2016