How to Help Your Son When He Struggles Academically: Part II

Last week we proposed four general categories of academic struggles, ranging from situations totally out of our control—such as significant learning challenges or a concussion—to situations that we can address, as parents and teachers. The last category of student who struggles academically is that boy who does not work hard and shows no real initiative to take responsibility for doing his work well.

Here are some practical steps that parents can take to address the unmotivated underperforming boy.

Step 1 – Assignment Notebook 

Insist that your son use an assignment notebook. Does your son attend a school that uses online assignments? As we explained last week, and in this podcast, you should purchase your boy a planner anyway.  We won’t beat a dead horse here, but, for present purposes, suffice it to say that boys need written planners that allow them to see the entire week’s worth of work on two paper pages.

Every day when your son gets home check to see if he has assignments written down in this notebook. If you suspect that he is missing assignments, do not hesitate to contact your son’s teachers or mentor. At The Heights, faculty take special care to coach boys in successfully completing this fundamental task. In some cases a teacher or mentor helps parents by reviewing this assignment book on a daily basis and signing it so the parents can see that it has faculty approval. Insist that your son has a plan of practical things he can do to improve in each class. Your son’s mentor or teachers should be very happy to help suggest practical steps for improvement. These steps/tasks should be written down.

If your son does not have his assignment book — “I forgot it at school” — or resists doing a good job with the task of writing down his assignments and study tasks, it will be necessary to respond in a strong manner. An example of an appropriate parental response to a son without his assignment notebook or other necessary materials (“I lost my book…”) is to require that he spend a substantial amount of time (more than you would normally expect him to spend on homework) doing some form of enriching reading— a selection from Heights Books, for example.  In addition, the boy should suffer the loss of all privileges; a forgotten planner should not yield extra time on the iPad (maybe any time on the iPad is the root for the lack of organization, anyway?). As Andy Reed spoke about in this podcast, if your son wants freedom, he has to show you responsibility. A strong response will quickly encourage the student who is reluctant to take responsibility for his assignment notebook to do so.

Step 2 – Place to Study 

Prepare a quiet place for your son to do homework that is free from distractions. A good place will have a desk or table where your son can sit with good lighting and ample room to spread out books. It is best not to have a computer nearby. While it is true that sometimes it is necessary to use a computer, such as to type a paper, it is also true that a computer or a cell phone (or similar device) can be… will likely be… nearly always is… a tremendous distraction. Students cannot study well if they are receiving and sending text messages or viewing images on a screen. When talking with boys, and as emphasized by Cal Newport, it is sometimes helpful to explain that the human mind only has the ability to concentrate well on one thing at a time. If some of his power of concentration is taken up with distracting messages, images on a screen or even listening to music, it is obvious that he cannot be putting forth maximal effort to learn the material. There are, however, a few exceptions to this principle. Some students can do math homework well while classical music is playing. Certain subjects like drawing pictures for art class can also be done while music is playing.

Students will occasionally need the Internet to look up something or to use a sensible educational program like Quizlet, PrepMe or Khan Academy. In these instances, it is best if the student leaves the normal place of study and his books, walks to the computer (located in a different place — a public place is a must), does what he needs to do and then returns after the “planned computer use” to his desk or table.

In short, the place of study should be free of distraction, technological and otherwise. If a boy is going to use a computer for homework, it should be for a concrete purpose and in a public place such as the kitchen or living room.

Step 3 – Schedule 

Establish a study schedule for your son at home. At The Heights we recommend that students in the upper school do two to three hours of study/homework each evening. If your son is struggling academically, it would make sense to require him to spend time studying each evening, perhaps one hour before dinner and two hours after dinner, at specific set times. This should be non-negotiable. If he claims that his homework is finished, firmly let him know that writing down adequate answers to written assignments is not all he has to do. Describe how a good student reads and rereads his texts, takes notes on them, reviews his vocabulary words, practices to master doing math problems and so on. Tell him that you will believe that everything is really done to perfection when his grades show it but that in the meantime he will spend time engaging his texts according to the established schedule each evening. If he is really looking for something else to do he can always do extra-credit reading from the Heights Books list.

All of this is what we refer to as the strategic enterprise of study. The term “homework” belittles the endeavor.

Step 4 – Removing Distractions 

Consider removing all video games from the home and greatly limiting computer and screen time in general. Time playing a video game or watching television weakens one’s attention span and ability to concentrate and study. Making a transition from the pace and stimulation of a screen to the quiet and focus of study is very difficult. After screen time it would be helpful to at least take a short walk around the block or do something to rest the mind before trying to engage texts. The bottom line is that the life of a student is closely connected with developing the intellectual virtues necessary for true study. Screens impede the development of these virtues and lead to a dull boredom towards learning about reality. If your son should happen to struggle with attention deficit, try killing the screen before resorting to medication. It means more work for us, as parents, but that’s what we signed up for, right?

Step 5 – Exercise and Chores 

Encourage your son to exercise and require him to do chores around the house. Exercise has a wonderful effect on the mind. A half hour of strenuous physical activity clears and refreshes the mind and better prepares it for intellectual work. At times, physical activity can even be combined with certain types of study. For example, it might help some students to bring their Latin vocabulary words with them when shooting basketball hoops: read a vocabulary word, think about it, and say it to oneself as one shoots a basket. Chores also provide a healthy distraction from study and a concrete way for your son to grow in service to others, specifically his family. Even though it can sometimes be difficult to do a good job studying (Am I studying the right things? Have I really learned the material well enough?), it is always possible for a young man to do a good job in his chores: the dishwasher is emptied; the trash is taken out, and so on. The repeated action of completing tasks well helps to build up virtues that will transfer to schoolwork and all of life. 

Step 6 – Strategize 

Contact your son’s mentor, teachers, or advisors to talk through the plan to help him improve. The mentor may have additional ideas that would be helpful and certainly will be able to help you by supporting your decisions as he talks to your son. It can help for a young man who is experiencing some real parental discipline to hear from a “big brother” figure that his parents really do care about him and are acting in a reasonable way with his best interest in mind.

Step 7 – Reach Out to Your Community

Odds are, if your boy is struggling academically, he is not alone.  There are other boys that have been in his shoes, and other parents that have worked through those obstacles. Seek support from families with older sons and ask them for guidance about how to turn the will towards study. Often times it helps just to know that you aren’t going at it alone.

We at The Heights are always interested in hearing from parents about what has worked for their boys. The experience of the modern adolescent is always evolving, though the nature of the human boy has stayed constant through time.

Please feel free to share your thoughts below.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.