Why your kid won’t study

The Chrismtas holidays have magical transformational powers. What was once a carefree year 11 is now a stressed out worrier with a twitch. What was a slightly concerned parent is now someone with insomnia, unable to sleep through thoughts of their teenager on the streets because they didn’t get their level 4 in maths.

This week I have had not one but three requests from parents of year 11s to have a sit down and “talk some sense” into their teen. It seems there is a great need for help in this area, so I thought I’d write some tips to help. If you’re a parent/carer/guardian of a teen who’s a bit too chill for their upcoming exams, hold on to the end and I may be able to help some more.

In my job I talk to, help and mentor lots of teens. It’s a privileged position because I’m not their parent, I’m not their teacher (the students call me by my first name – it’s all informal here), and also I’m pretty Down With The Kids (I used to work at Nintendo, donchaknow?!) Sometimes it helps to have someone unrelated to the situation to come in and have a chat.

But no matter who the teen is, the same issues come up again and again. It’s usually one of a handful of things that get in their way to studying. So, if you’re sat there worried about your own study-less teen, have a look over these and see if one fits:

They think they’re stupid

Here’s a common theme: they feel like they can’t answer questions as well as their classmates, so they feel stupid, so they avoid participating by mucking around with their friends, so they don’t listen, so they understand less, so they feel more stupid. Repeat as required.

It’s a tale as old as time, but I feel it’s worse these days because of the emphasis put on exam grades. They feel like GCSEs are the only thing that matter in the world – of course, in their world, they are the only thing that matter. So to not be able to participate in this thing that’s so important…well, it sucks. Understandably.

How to fix it

Firstly, help them understand that it’s not the end of the world if they don’t do well in their GCSEs. When I talk about this to students I’m really careful to NOT give the message of them not trying at all – just that if they try really hard and it doesn’t work, there are other options. They can work on a level two qualification (as a diplima, BTEC or apprenticeship) and have another chance at their GCSE maths and English.

Secondly, being open about failure being OK is really important. They need to know that when they don’t know the answer in class, that’s totally OK. And that perhaps other people who seem to know the answers all the time might not be as knowledgable as they seem – but that you have to be in it to win it. By not participating in class, they’re pulling themselves down.

There is a way to go too far with this. I have heard a lot of parents tell their children “I’ve never used maths and so it’s useless – you should focus on other things” which is an unhealthy attitude to have.

This issue is linked to the next one…

They don’t know how to revise

Most schools will be drumming home different ways to study, such as how to make and use flashcards, how to use colours and highlighters and so on. But still, sometimes it takes a little time to go over things again to make it easier.

How to fit it

It could be a case of getting them to commit to a certain amount of time each day – there are resources online that can help with this but perhaps it’s as simple as writing on the family calendar. The sweet spot is usually somewhere between 30-50 minutes studying with 10-15 minutes break, but this depends on the person of course.

It’s hard to approach this subject because your young person probably has revision advice thrown at them all the time, constantly. So instead of coming up with new ways (which will probably cause frustration and anger), it might be better to sit and test them on their flashcards. Maybe make it a nightly time; from 7pm – 7:30pm it’s quiz time, with a different subject each night.

Revising together can show them that they’re not in this alone, and that it’s OK to not know the answers all the time. When my youngest sister was going through GCSEs I sat down and worked with her on her science flashcards, practising over and over with her until she got the answers right. It showed her that I was there for her, and she was accountable to me so I could ensure she was studying her least favourite subject often.

They haven’t got anything to work for

Revising for exams suck. Just like we, as adults, think about how awesome our weekends are going to be to get us through the Wednesday afternoon slog, teens need something to work towards to get them through their exams.

When they don’t know what they want to do in the future it can make things frustrating. But they’ve got exams to focus on, so trying to figure out what to do in the future on top of that is just out of the question, mum!!!!

How to fix it

This isn’t the time to start grilling them, hoping they’ll pick a career. More than anything, young people stress out because they think they have to pick one thing and stick with it forever; we need to be talking more about squiggly careers and how you can take the skills and knowledge gained from one route and turn to do something else entirely.

Instead, focus on what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at. Make a list of their skills and strengths (but don’t expect it to be easy for them to say something nice about themselves).

I sometimes set students the task of writing three things they’re good at (can be skills or qualities), then asking a friend to write three more things, then asking a family member or teacher to do three more. In the end hopefully they’ll have a list of 9 things they are awesome at, and likely to be some that they’d never considered before. This activity works wonders for self-esteem.

Asking them to consider what success looks like also works well. The question just as it is, is a very challenging one, so I sometimes tell students about my dad and my uncle.

My dad is a (now retired) fireman, who was really great at saving people. Sometimes he would come home having saved families from car crashes, sometimes he would be really invested in helping some new, young recruit. He really likes helping people and he enjoyed being able to make a difference every day. He has a big group of friends he made in the fire service; he’s always got someone to talk to or so something with. It was a really challenging job because sometimes the house was lost or the person wasn’t able to be saved, so he has a really tight-knit bond with his fire service friends.

My uncle is a banker, who is really great at helping people with their money. Everyone I speak with who works in the same company as him knows his name, and they all speak really highly of him. He earns a lot of money; is able to buy pretty much anything he wants. He provides really well for his family and they never have to be lacking in anything.

Once I have told students about my uncle and dad, I ask them which one is successful – of course, both of them. But to students, it’s a good way to get them thinking about whether they are motivated by helping people or motivated by money. Again, it isn’t a “one or the other” situation, it’s just a jumping off point to get them thinking.

Having explored what success might look like to them, I get students to look on Indeed or another job site, to see what kind of jobs involve the things they said would make them successful. Exploring jobs is really important; they can’t aspire to be something they don’t know about.

Conclusion

These are just three of the most common barriers preventing revision from happening. I think most young people who are putting off hitting the books have a combination of the above barriers.

Having been asked so much this week to help people personally, I would like to put the offer out there; if you are a parent of a teen who is stuck, I am happy to explore ways to help. If you are local to Cambridge then perhaps we could look into a face to face chat, or if you’re not then maybe we can use Skype or FaceTime to see where the barriers are.

This is a new offer from me; before this week I didn’t know there was a need for it, but apparently there is! Pop me an email to CharlotteSteggz[at]gmail.com and let’s see how I can help you.

If you have any thoughts and comments, please do let me know below!


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