Working with a Bright & Occasionally Very Motivated High Schooler: Tips & Strategies!

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As I visit other homeschooling blogs, I love to be encouraged and inspired in a very practical way. I’ve seen all sorts of posts written from various perspectives on homeschooling- moms of special needs kids are very helpful as are moms of gifted children. I love to read how each of us is suited for the children we teach and what’s been successful along the way. One niche I find curiously missing is the helpful hints for moms of smart, sometimes motivated students. Maybe it’s because no one has figured it out yet. Or perhaps moms are too embarrassed to blog about the topic. Today, I’m doing it.

Blog She Wrote: Strategies for working with the occasionally motivated teen

First, let me say that I have my 14yo’s permission to write about him. Ethan is an accelerated learner, tests well, learns things with little effort– especially up until now (think high school chemistry- which does require a little time), and is that quintessential boy who doesn’t often put his best effort into a project- the first time. He’s a fantastic kid with many talents. He has his dad’s superpower of remembering whatever he reads which is so handy in the real world. I love to watch him grow in leadership skills and responsibility and I adore the glimpses I get of the man he is becoming!

He comes by the effort thing honestly. Dan was the same way. My husband is a bright, motivated, successful chemical engineer. He approaches everything he does with excellence. He wants to be certain that anything with his name on it, represents him well. It wasn’t always this way though. Like Ethan, Dan learned things with very little effort. By the time he went to college at Virginia Tech, he lacked the work ethic he needed to be successful. He knew he was smart enough and didn’t want to work hard enough. As a result, he ultimately failed out. This story does have a happy ending. He continued to work for a professor on campus and he had some good mentors (and his parents prayed A LOT) who influenced him to return to school and finish well. Dan graduated from Virginia Tech, was hired to work in the semiconductor industry and left there to work full time as an engineer at Cornell University while working on his graduate degree part time. From being asked to take an academic break to finishing a graduate degree from an Ivy League University, Dan’s story had some plot twists.

I was the opposite. I got an A- in my first graduate class and decided then that no professor would have to even consider that I might not have an A. There would be no mistake. I graduated with a 4.0, having missed only two points all semester in one of the most difficult classes in the degree. Translation: I don’t get not trying to do your best!

But, Dan does. He knows it intimately and that’s why he is so fervently opposed to it. We don’t know how this will turn out, but we are working to challenge him and to give him the tools for making good choices. And we’re praying. A LOT.

Our goal with Ethan, given his personality, is to help him take responsibility for his own learning NOW and to learn the hard lessons while the consequences aren’t as dire. It’s the reason we started homeschooling in the first place. If we can help him to avoid waiting that long to spark his internal motivation, we’ll have a win.

We want to influence the change in the mindset that says, “I don’t have to work my hardest because this is easy.”  Our mission: To get him to erase the words “good enough” from his vernacular!

Blog She Wrote: Teaching the Unmotivated Student

So, how do you homeschool a high schooler who is a very bright and an occasionally very motivated student?

Remember that habits instilled by you early on may not be the ones your children hold on to for their own.

This one is important because when you find yourself with a teen who isn’t internally motivated, you wonder what happened to all those things you taught him when he was young. As lovely as habit formation is in the early years with homeschooling, you will find your learners taking on their own style as they grow more independent. More importantly, their style may not match yours!

Don’t get me wrong…good habits are important and worthwhile to teach. Often their influence will resurface later on in life, but while this phase is in high gear you’ll need to remember to let them grow. And figure it out on their own. With your influence.

Be relentless in teaching responsibility through school work- and in all areas.

I always said teaching public middle school was mostly teaching responsibility and work habits and not so much content. Part of that is because of the age. Starting in middle school, the expectations are higher for the kids and it takes time for them to get used to it. It takes time for their parents to get used to it.

The same is true for homeschooled adolescents. Hopefully, we are requiring more independent work and raising the bar on our expectations for our students in both the quality and type of work they are doing. Being at home may make the transition seem more gradual, but ultimately we are striving for more independence from our students.

By high school, we’re really transitioning our parenting and likewise our schooling strategies. I am keenly aware that my 14yo freshman only has about three more years until he is completely responsible for himself, his education, his future. The time consuming task of early parenting has been replaced with an equally arduous goal of making double sure they are ready to be on their own.

For us, making sure our student knows that he alone is responsible for his actions is so important. When an assignment is completed haphazardly, it is so easy to place the blame on others- whether it is a sibling, a chore you asked him to complete, or that he simply forgot. At the end of the day, he has to own his part in whatever happened.

Blog She Wrote: Working with the Bright and Occasionally Motivated Teen

Be steadfast in teaching work ethic.

In every area of life. Unmotivated students are king at using the words “good enough”. I had a college math professor who used to say, “If you play now, you’ll have to work hard later, but if you work hard now…you can play later.” There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement and it applies to so many things in life.

The corollary to not working because it’s really easy and you don’t have to is quitting when something does require work! If it requires too much effort, then meh…nevermind.

Eventually, your student will have to work at something even if it’s not interesting. Work ethic is paramount to this valuable skill!

One way to increase work ethic is to challenge your student. If the work doesn’t present a challenge either academically or with interest, then he isn’t going to have to work hard. And this only reinforces the idea that stuff isn’t hard and there’s no reason to put in a lot of effort.

Collaborate and present challenging goals to your student with deadlines.

Sometimes lack of motivation is a result of boredom. We all know kids who act out when they’re bored. Public school teachers generally reject this phenomenon as a myth. I know. I once did- as a classroom teacher.

A bright kid who doesn’t like to work hard typically doesn’t have to. He can do some level of bare minimum work and get away with decent grades. So, a bright kid needs to be pressed to stay in the game and play hard. Bring your student to the table so he has a stake in laying out his academic goals for high school. You want your student to feel the ownership of his own education…it will keep him engaged.

Blog She Wrote: Working with a Bright, Occasionally Motivated Teen

Make sure your student has an area of focus- something to pour into during his high school years.

A mantra at our house is you can’t go through high school playing LEGOS and video games in all your free time! Sure those things are fun, but every kid has to have something he can focus on throughout their teen years.

Unmotivated students can be encouraged to pick a focus and learn as much as they can. This is a prime candidate for Project Based Homeschooling. It could be a job. It could be volunteer work or really investigating a hobby. It should be challenging and provide experience and hopefully rewards- whether personal or external. For our 14yo, falconry is the thing.  He loves birds of prey and falconry and this is something he needs to own. We’ve given him the opportunity and the tools to finish the licensing process. It’s up to him to make it happen at this point.

Ideally, your student will pick the “thing” that he will pour into. As a parent, you can mentor your student and help him find what he’s passionate about. At our house, in this season, the expectation is that each student will explore possibilities and settle on something OR we pick it. There is no option to “not choose” or to be in a “perpetual state of looking or thinking about” a topic/project/focus. That’s one of the oldest tricks for a student who is not engaged…”I’m still thinking”…

Keep in mind that it’s ok for the focus to shift and change. It’s not really about the “thing” anyway. It’s about exploring possibilities and pouring into something that is important to them.

Blog She Wrote: Working wtih the Bright, Occasionally Motivated Teen

Your consistent attempts to help your student find his own motivation must include check points & consequences.

Typically, the bright, unmotivated student will eventually find that source of internal motivation. It is a key to fulfilling his God-given potential and being a good steward of his gifts.

But, you want them to have this moment of realization earlier not later. As anyone who has ever been in this position and experienced hardship before really grasping hold of his own destiny knows, it isn’t pleasant and it’s best avoided. If you can help it.

We check in with Ethan to make sure goals and expectations are being met. Our 9th grader meets twice weekly with Dan to go over his geometry and chemistry. I take care of English, social studies, foreign language, and the electives. We set goals for the week and we check in on Tuesday and Fridays. If the work is not up to par, then there is a consequence.

At our house, we are working with more of the university model. That is, we set out his work and give him some freedom to make choices about when he will complete tasks, but when he hits a deadline the stuff is expected…no matter how he chose to spend that time or what happened in the week. For example, if he decided to put something off and then something came up whether it’s sickness or a cool outing with a friend, his deadline stays. In three more years he’s officially in control of his future, so experiencing freedom of choice is important. The days of micromanaging his time are over.  He has to live with the consequences of his choices. It’s part of learning how to manage his time while being challenged academically and living life and investing in projects.

Blog She Wrote: Working with the Bright, Occasionally Motivated Teen

What’s the point? To make sure the consequence is felt enough that it makes doing his best worth his time. The first time. A consequence is usually the long term loss of a beloved activity or item. What teenage boy wants to give up screen time for a few weeks? We’re going with the natural consequences on this. He is given autonomy over his routine for the most part. There are some things in his day which are driven by me because it’s an activity shared with a sibling, like Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings.

Many things he is free to work on when he chooses knowing a couple things: 1) All the work up to the check point must be completed with maximum effort. 2) He won’t get screen time at the end of the day if he hasn’t worked diligently that day- although sometimes he does and it will just catch up with him at a check in time. 3) We have an expectation on how long a student his age should be engaged in learning. If he hasn’t met that for the day, generally he will not play.

Keep in mind that his academic day includes his regular course work and his electives or passion pursuits. Time spent on task is not just book work but his project work as well.

Some homeschooling high school resources:

  • The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens by Debra Bell- I’ve really begun to enjoy this one. It was given to me last summer at a convention and I only picked it up this week as I wanted to share it with you. I’m so glad I did! She and I think a lot a like!
  • Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Gladys Hunt- this is such a great book on using books to communicate with teens
  • Homeschooler’s High School Journal– I list his weekly academic goals in here and it’s what we use during checkpoints during the week
  • My Well Planned Day– this one I’ve been dabbling with since my older kids have mobile devices and can check on assignments. It also allows my husband to add in things like articles to read that day.
  • High School 4 Year Planner– I don’t find this one has a lot of room for daily assignments so I prefer the high school journal. However, it’s a great place to record coursework and credits. Plus, it has a lot of great tips for students and parents for the high school years. It’s a little nerve wracking to see his graduation year on there… so close!
  • Project Based Homeschooling– this book and its author, Lori Pickert, have been instrumental in putting a name and a framework on what we’ve been doing in our homeschool all along. I love this community of parents and kids who are doing extraordinary work. It’s inspiring and encouraging!

Our goal and our prayer is that our very bright, occasionally very motivated high schooler will ultimately find the key to internal motivation. To work hard and present himself well any time he sets out to do something. It’s there. We await its dominance in his life!

In the words of Debra Bell in The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens:

Our job is to give our kids compelling reasons to engage. Motivation fuels persistence- it’s why we don’t quit when things get hard, whether it’s homeschooling or doing calculus. Persistence is how we make gains…Learning occurs because we persist. And no one persists through difficulties unless they are motivated- something is giving them a reason not to quit.

As we continue to teach high school, I’ll be sure to share some more ideas on what can motivate a bright student who is less than ideally in the game. I’ll also share our high school curriculum in future posts.What strategies have you used with your high schoolers? Feel free to leave a comment!

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  1. This post is so interesting to me, not as a homeschooling parent (yet, I hope) but as a student! I recognise myself in your description of Ethan – good grades have always come easily to me and I haven’t really had to work hard so far. I typically don’t get stressed by exams, which is good, but also means I don’t put in the work. However, I’m about to start a course that is going to involve a lot of hard work, and your post has made me start thinking about how I will set myself expectations and hold to them. It’s hard to do that alone, especially without years of practice during school, but I have some ideas and you’ve given me some more, so thank you!

  2. I too have an occasionally motivated and bright teen! 🙂 She’s 13 and sometimes she wants to take on the world…and sometimes she wants to lay around on the couch all day. This was helpful to me in many ways and it’s great to know that I am not the only one who struggles with this. Project Based Homeschooling is a great book – glad to see you mention it! It has helped us a lot, simply to look at things a little differently.

    Nice to “meet” you! I found you through iHN. 🙂

    1. Amy, Welcome!

      My just about 13yo daughter is another story, but she has storms of creativity!

      I’m so glad the post was helpful to you! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂 Yay for iHN!

  3. Thanks for another inspiring post Heather! My oldest is only 7, but she has some of those same tendencies. You have given me lots to think about and discuss with my husband.

    1. Thanks Angela! THIS is THE reason we began homeschooling 8 years ago. It was going to be a long 12 years and that was back at half way through first grade when my 6yo decided he could complete his weekly homework two minutes before school on the day it was due- his words exactly! haha

      And any struggles we are having are not a result of homeschooling. The same struggles would be happening in school building. We have the opportunity to address it in a different way and frankly much of this was avoided when he was younger just by pouring in. High school brings a new angle as you know…

      Homeschooling him when he was younger was dreamy because he followed lots of paths and was never bored always challenged. The tendencies have grown the more his preferences have shown up and the older he’s gotten!

  4. Thank you for posting this! Like you, I was the nose to the grind-stone student and my husband was the one that everything came easy for (until grad school, though he did get through it)—I think that part of it is personality type (I work hard even at things that do come easy for me) and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my being a “girl” and his being a “boy” has something to do with it.

    My oldest is 13 and has a big problem with motivation. He’s a very bright kid, but he also has some very slight learning issues. It’s gotten much worse in with the hormones. Certain things simply are not easy for him and probably never will be, but it’s extremely hard to get him motivated enough to put in the work he needs to make it stick. I do agree, that work ethic does play an important part. The truth is, if he doesn’t see the purpose for something, he just doesn’t want to put the work in.

    1. Hi Susan,

      It’s hard to be motivated to do things that are difficult for us. We’re all a little that way I think.

      As for purpose, that’s why I love Project Based Homeschooling- it’s student driven and we are the mentors. You don’t have to do all of your school in this manner, but a portion of the day goes a long way in perking everyone up in other areas- in my experience.

      I also let my kids make decisions that might make an assignment or course work more meaningful to them. Maybe that is something your son would like? If I want a certain project or direction and my kids can say I’d rather do it this way or go in that direction, if it’s reasonable why not? Or I’ll say that is fine, but what else do we need to think about. Then all of a sudden you have a student who is engaged and driving his own education. Win/win!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  5. Great post, Heather. I worked with gifted kids for ten years, and now homeschool my own, one of whom is a totally unmotivated, under-achieving ten year old. Underachievement is not what most people expect when they think gifted or smart, but it is a really common struggle. I’ll share this on my FB page during the week — many of my readers have gifted kids & I’m sure this will resonate. 🙂

  6. what a great post — i’m pinning it to my learning board on pinterest!

    i agree completely with your approach. encouraging them to find a focus not only gives them one area where self-motivation is guaranteed, it can give them a taste of what’s to come if they’re attending college — in fact, i wish more kids would deeply investigate during their high school years the thing they *think* they want to study in college. so many kids end up changing majors OR (even worse) going ahead and completing a degree and then immediately either returning to school or getting a master’s because they’ve realized it’s not for them.

    1. Thanks Lori!

      Yes, a focus…something to pour into and figure out and grow deeper with…would go a long way, wouldn’t it?

  7. What a great post Heather! Thanks for sharing so many encouraging tips yet encouraging us fellow parents to be mentors – sticking firm to consequences and realizing the time is oh so short until they graduate. Yes, smart, unmotivated over here now and then too! “More importantly, their style may not match yours!”

  8. I found with my very capable bright boys that finding the hook was always the key. If I could hook them into a project or subject they were much more motivated. I also found that with my boys (all three of them) that it took every minute of those high school years to develop what I would consider good study skills and responsibility. It is a long term project and each one has to mature to a certain degree before it happens.

    The most frustrating part for me as a homeschooling parent of bright gifted children was the boredom factor. A topic would only hold their attention for so long and then they had to have a new mountain to conquer. This was difficult to handle when I would build a year’s course on a topic and by January they wanted to move on to the next topic of interest. I guess it was the beauty and flexibility of homeschooling that made it a bit easier to change gears mid-year.

    Great post Heather…thanks for sharing so many thoughts!

    1. Oh man is that ever true! I’m putting together an Ancient Studies program and considering whether it will be a semester or a full year. I’m sure there’s enough for a year, but not sure he will last the whole time with the same enthusiasm.

      We are working relentlessly on those good habits. And praying they take hold!

  9. Hi Heather,

    My nearly 14yo daughter is a gifted AND highly motivated homeschooled student. My problem is she’s starting to get into subjects that require a certain amount of maturity to answer the questions. Being only 13 and doing work meant for a 16-17yo means her answers are often simplistic and lack knowledge about how the world works. History is the main problem at this stage. Have you got any suggestions for me? Should I forget about history for now? Should I accept the simpler answers as still ok (my current method)?Am I worried about nothing ? She does seem to understand the content, just may not be picking up on the undertones. She is enrolledin a whole curriculum at ACHS, but this is an elective subject that she doesn’t have to do.

    1. That’s certainly one way to go about it- she may be capable of good writing, but lacks the life experience and maturity for a well thought out answer. This is especially true for assignments that require analysis and opinion along with application. Those higher level thinking skills will mature with age. I would accept the best answer based on her level of maturity as it relates to a topic.

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