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When Your Student is Behind at School—and Mad at You

Dear Mrs. Norris,

My son is driving me crazy. He won’t do his school work. He talks back and tells me to leave him alone, but when I do leave him alone, nothing gets done, nothing gets turned in, and somehow he’s still mad at me. As his mom, I just want to help him. Is there anything to do?


Crazy Concerned

Dear Crazy Concerned,

First, I sympathize with your struggles. One of the most difficult things is to try to help someone when you know they need your help, but they don’t seem to want it.

Second, I don’t have any magical solutions, but I do have some tips that might help.

Start by being a kid again for ten minutes. Remember how much stress you felt when friends left you out. Remember the anxiety you had over your first high school exam or standardized test. Remember what it felt like when you had disappointed your parents. Remember the things they did that made you angry or embarrassed. Remember just wanting to be thought of as an adult.

This will allow you to begin from a place of empathy.

Then, always, always start by asking questions. You might think you have the full story; you might even be sure your child won’t tell the whole truth, but asking honest questions—not pointed or accusatory ones—makes you seem like an ally instead of an adversary. For example, ask, “What do you think kept you from doing your work today,” but not, “Don’t you care about doing well?” The former is directed toward solving the problem; the latter is an accusation that makes your student feel disrespected and at the same time gives him the upper hand. He will either answer, “yes,” and you will be stuck in a circle: he gave the answer you wanted, but still he does no work, and you are right back where you started; or, he will answer, “no,” and he will have squashed any potential the conversation had for moving forward.

In addition, remember that maintaining control of the conversation does not mean being the bossiest or the most forceful; it means anticipating responses before they happen, staying in control of yourself, and not allowing the student to derail the conversation with silliness or sassiness. If your son tries to get you off track with a smart or goofy remark, consider just ignoring it. A response, even an admonishing one, detracts from the conversation about school work and creates an argument that prevents progress on the issue at hand. Stay serious and on-topic and repeat your questions quietly and patiently until your student drops all the attempted diversions and becomes your collaborator.

It is also imperative that you make sure that your student feels like a respected adult. I hate to say it, but sometimes what seems like rebellion against school is sometimes rebellion against the parents. And, contrary to first-blush intuition, the answer to rebellion often isn’t a crack-down of authority, but an increase in respect. You demand respect from your student; do you respect him in return, and does he know it? Most people will work decently hard to please people who respect them, but they will work even harder to displease people who disrespect them.

That said, respect is not the same as abdicating your authority, which is real, and which you need to maintain out of love for your child. While you don’t want to harp on your child and have him always in trouble with you, you should have clear consequences for poor choices, and you should do what you say you are going to do. Nothing encourages irresponsibility in your child like parents failing to provide the promised consequence. Be judicious about what is deserving of consequences, and then implement them reliably.

Next, as much as you want to make your student do his schoolwork, you can’t. You cannot operate his brain or his hands. It has to be his decision. Therefore, treat it as such. Help your student see the benefits of choosing to do the work; help your student think through the costs of not doing the work; add negative consequences for not doing the work and positive ones for doing it. But pretending you can make the student do the work will lead to endless nagging that will, as likely as not, discourage the student from doing what you wanted in the first place.

Through all this, do your best to leave emotions out of it. We all know how invested you are in your child’s future, success, and happiness. But, if you allow your interactions with your child to be emotion-driven, you run a couple risks: you might antagonize your child with anger and frustration, or you might weird your child out with tears they don’t understand—and in both situations, students will likely grow dubious about your opinions. Additionally, emotional responses will likely create more distance between yourself and your child, who may begin to see you as an opponent to fight against or as someone determined to make him feel bad. Of course, there are some circumstances in which emotion is not only justified, but necessary. But in normal, everyday interactions, try to keep it even-keeled.

Additionally, be on the lookout for lies, and respond firmly. I had one parent who brought his son to a meeting with me, concerned about his son’s lack of progress in my class. Repeated errors combined with a too-cool-for-school attitude and demonstrated ability told me the kid wasn’t doing his reading. However, when asked by his dad if he was doing the reading, the kid—of course—said yes, and without asking any more questions, the dad took him at his word. I knew in that moment why the kid was falling behind: he knew he could lie to his parents without them ever finding out. I don’t tell this story to make you paranoid—I’ve met overly suspicious parents, too, the kind who are always doubting their kids—but at least ask some follow-up questions. Have him do homework in front of you for a few days and quiz him on it afterward. The truth will out.

Last but not least, build up good behavior—even if it is small. Students may put on a lot of bluff and bluster, but for the most part, they really do want to do well in life, and, somewhere deep down, they do want to please you. Building their confidence in the small things that they do well may work wonders for their willingness to put effort into bigger things.

Finally, I should emphasize that sometimes, there are underlying issues that lead to situations like the one you describe—issues that are beyond my expertise. I urge you to seek help if things don’t take a turn for the better. You should never feel like a failure for seeking assistance; only the wise ask for help.

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