An unmotivated first-grader

December 18, 2012

QOur middle son, who is 6, is a bright child, but he is completely unmotivated to learn at school or to read at home. He just refuses to challenge himself.

His teacher says that he is capable of doing the work, but he simply won’t do it. Consequently, she can’t assess his work, and he fails to meet the standards for first grade.

It often takes him hours to finish a simple class assignment and then he has to miss recess so he can get this work done. Even that fails to spur him on, but if we threaten him with dire consequences at home — like missing a favorite show on television — he’ll do the work in just a few minutes.

If we leave him with his homework for even a minute or two, however, he begins to doodle in the margins or poke holes in his paper. His interest in reading isn’t any better. He’ll read to us, but he won’t pick up a book on his own.

We are tired of using bribes and threats to motivate our son. How can we get him to want to learn “just because”?


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

A Parents have the right to be ambitious for themselves but not for their children. This isn’t a license to be permissive, but a reminder to respect your son as he is and not as you think he should be.

Even though your little boy is just6 years old, he is the only one who can decide what he wants to learn and when he wants to learn it. If your son thinks that you are telling him what to do, or if he thinks that you or his teacher is pushing him too much or too hard, he may not do the work because he is the boss of himself. If so, you should turn off the television on school nights, to avoid some arguments and let your son be responsible for his own homework.

But those aren’t the only problems that could be holding your son back.

He might not be motivated yet because boys usually act about six months younger than girls, which is one reason why many parents send their daughters to school as soon as they’re eligible but put their sons in school a year later. Or perhaps your son is simply too young for first grade, even though he can read. In that case, you might switch him to a school with a Waldorf curriculum if you can afford it. In this Rudolph Steiner system, the education is usually quite good, and rituals are key; classrooms are calm and orderly, art is encouraged and the curriculum is matched to the development of the children. Teachers don’t expect their students to read until they lose their first baby teeth.

Other children are easily distracted because they don’t get enough recess time at school. To combat this trend, some teachers have their students stand up when they answer a question or make them jump while reciting their multiplication tables. Even small movements make the brain get bigger because they produce more neurons and more blood vessels, but your son’s brain will grow even more if he can run around in the back yard for a while after school.

If your son is still quite distractible and fidgety, and if he still has a short attention span and makes careless errors, he might have attention deficit disorder. But not always. One study says that parents should always have their child’s eyes checked before he gets tested for ADD, because these disorders often have the same symptoms.

Although an ophthalmologist will tell you how well your son can see, it usually takes a developmental or behavioral optometrist to tell you how well his eyes are working when he reads or when he looks back and forth from the blackboard to the printed page. Some children get headaches because they can’t focus well or their vision is blurry, but they don’t complain because they think that heads are supposed to hurt or that the world is a blur for everyone.

If your son has these or other vision problems, don’t despair. Vision therapy is to the eyes what physical therapy is to the body, and it’s effective 90 percent of the time. He’ll just have to wear special glasses for a little while every day, do some eye exercises every day and maybe play a couple of video games. To learn more, go to www.covd.org, the Web site for the College of Optometrists in Vision Development.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read past Family Almanac columns. Kelly’s live Q&A next chat is scheduled for Jan. 17.

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