Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

Influencing Good Study Habits

Dear Steve,

My son is twelve going on thirteen and is in the seventh grade. I understand seventh grade is a difficult adjustment, however he simply refuses to do his classwork and homework. He has been tested for learning disabilities as well as emotional problems, but was declared a bright and healthy young teen—both emotionally and physically. We have tried many methods of both punishment and rewards systems, but nothing seems to work. He simply refuses to do his work in class and at home, and he only does his homework when I am watching him. This method is not helping anyone. Additionally, his attitude toward school has greatly affected his ability to make friends and connect with his peers; his grades are so poor, he has been prevented from joining social clubs and activities. I am truly at a loss as to how I can help him achieve success in life. What would you suggest?

At Wit’s End

Dear At Wit’s End,

In my experience, one of the biggest contributing factors to why you feel so stuck is that you don’t know why you’re stuck! And you don’t know if it’s something he’ll eventually grow out of or even how long it might last. For me, it’s actually the worst kind of stuck. It feels so frustrating because no matter what you try, nothing seems to change. This feeling is compounded by the fact that this problem is not inconsequential—it’s his education.

First of all, when you find yourself in this type of situation, you need to resist the temptation to jump from solution to solution. You try something, it doesn’t work, so on to the next idea until finally, you feel your only option is to administer consequences in increasingly creative, and severe, ways. Now you’ve entered The Escalation Zone!

Now, what to do. I’d submit that these types of situations require a second or third look at what is driving the person’s actions. Our assumptions are often partially, and sometimes completely, wrong. As a result, our solutions and remedies fall short, leaving us frustrated. These types of situations are well suited to the Six Sources of Influence™.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the model, it’s based on the idea that in order for people to do something, they have to be both motivated and able—they have to want to do it, and know how or be able to do it. We’ve found this very useful in understanding behavior choice. The Six Source Model helps us examine those two conditions at three levels: Personal, Social, and Structural. A close examination of all six of these sources of influence helps us be more effective. We can expand our view of why people do what they do and consider factors outside of those we naturally gravitate toward when diagnosing.

So, here is a quick run down of the sources and how each might be contributing to the problem:

Source 1: Personal Motivation.
This source assesses the intrinsic motivators that affect behavior choice. So, does this your son find value in or derive satisfaction from doing schoolwork? It sounds like from your comments the answer is a big “NO!” And before you start to think, “Tell me something I don’t already know,” let me say that there is a catch to this source that can be tricky. If a person is facing significant barriers over a long period of time, their overall frustration builds up to the point that it boils over into personal motivation. So an, “I hate this,” might not really be an “I hate this.” Hmmm. On to Source 2 for a little more explanation.

Source 2: Personal Ability. With Source 2, examine the skills, knowledge, and overall wherewithal a person has to engage in any given behavior. The sad truth is that when people feel like they aren’t able to do something, it affects their motivation—they start to like it less.

I was working on a literacy project many years ago in Tennessee. We researched causes of illiteracy and found that those who rated reading very low as an activity they enjoyed also indicated that they didn’t know how to read. Years of not being able to read affected their overall feelings toward the activity. We also discovered that if we worked on their reading skills, they found the activity much more enjoyable. So maybe your son doesn’t have good study skills (how to take notes, skim vs read, etc.), or doesn’t do as well with organization and prioritization skills.

Sources 3 & 4: Social Motivation and Ability. How are other people affecting him? Does he have new friends that encourage or discourage certain behaviors? Does he need help from a tutor? What impact are you, his family, having on him? In our house, we realized that when one of our sons (the oldest) said negative things about schoolwork, the youngest started to do the same.

Source 5: Structural Motivation. In source 5, we take a look at incentives and punishments. As parents, we tend to rely on these too heavily when it comes to getting our children to do what we want them to do. I know that I’ve relied far too often on punishment to teach my kids what I hope they learn instead of coaching and training.

When it comes to this source, I’d encourage you to think of how to use rewards also. For example, we used to get our kids to identify something they enjoy doing like playing a board game. They could use this to reward themselves for staying on task.

Source 6: Structural Ability. Here we look at the tools and resources a person has versus those he or she might need. Is there a system, or method that your son would benefit from? Is there a structure or schedule that would get him to perform better?

And while all of the solutions cited above are good ideas, the best and most effective ideas are those that address the barriers the individual person—in this case your son—is facing. Even though you’ve already done an analysis, it can be useful to look again to make sure the root causes aren’t being masked by something else.

Now, you will probably find that those whom you are trying to influence also face barriers from each of these sources. This is a fairly common occurrence. But many of us, when faced with multi-faceted barriers, look to only one source of influence for solutions. Instead, try implementing solutions from the sources you diagnosed as “at risk” concurrently and see what happens—especially with challenges that seem intractable and insurmountable.

Good luck, and may the “source” be with you!

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14 thoughts on “Influencing Good Study Habits”

  1. Ruth Finkelstein

    I do not have children but have worked with unmotivated individuals throughout my life/carreer and found that personal contracts work well. If you do this, then you get this. This also has worked well personally when I find myself procrastinating about a task.

  2. Becky Jaques

    As I read this article I am seeing so many signs of Dyslexia. Many parents experience the same types of behaviors and although they are tested for learning disabilities in school, the tests which “diagnose” for dyslexia are not administered in most public schools. Dyslexia students are usually describes at bright, intelligent, and creative. There is a parent movement call Decoding Dyslexia in each state now. I am suggesting to contact the states’ group and/or start doing some research. This would at least eliminate one more cause of these behaviors.

    1. Steve W.

      This actually happened to my sister when she was in 1st grade. The school mis-diagnosed dyslexia as an unmotivated learner. The teacher kept trying to tell her how important it was to do well, which in the end, created guilt instead of motivation because she was trying hard but not achieving. Once she got the right diagnosis, and the support she needed, she was able to excel in her classwork.

  3. Kathy Jahnz

    Rebel without a Cause
    I found this parental dilemma very interesting since my husband and I experienced a similar situation with our oldest son when he was in high school. We had moved into a new school district and his focus was primarily on making friends and fitting in. Most of the friends he met were nice kids, but like him no so much into academic achievements. We tried motivations and punishments but neither seemed to work. When we talked to him about incomplete assignments and discuss his grades he would observe that he scored high on exams even though he didn’t read the materials, completely dismissing all the zeros for missed assignment and their influence on his grades.
    Prior to our move into this new school district we had moved him from public school to a parochial school where he struggled to fit in and was treated as an outsider. It seemed that his primary focus was to avoid repeating this situation.
    He completed high school with little desire to further his education at a college or a trade school. He took a few classes at the local 2-year state college but never stuck with it. He is now in his 30s with a family and has made the decision to seek higher education in order to secure a higher paying job.
    If we had been able to somehow incorporate his need for friendship and acceptance with applying himself at school, the outcome may have been different. He is bright and very talented but wasn’t at that time interested in applying himself at school and we failed to find a way to change this situation.

  4. Laurie

    Great advice. Two considerations come to mind from a retired professional and grown up child.

    The parents might want to get a second opinion from a mental health professional doing an interactive observance of family life and school life. Choose someone without a vested interest i.e. outside the school system. In reading this, it appears depression is rearing it’s ugly head but a professional opinion is warranted. Depression is anger turned inward. Something is amiss for depression to take hold. This task is best left to a wise, compassionate professional.

    He is a very fortunate person to have such concerned parents. The consequences the parents have chosen are not right for this child. We often choose what we believe works based on our personal bias. The results of a second opinion may affect the choice of consequences. The child should have some input into consequences (but not be the final authority in childhood) because the child is the one who will have to live with themselves their life. The Bible encourages us to raise up the child in the way he child should go. Ultimately, parents are responsible for training a child as these parents are diligently doing, but the child needs to accept responsibility for himself only before ready to accept responsibility for others as a young adult and team player. I strongly suspect this point is skewed in the child’s life. This requires some team work between child, parents and professional coaching. The lead player is the child but the authority at this time remains with the parents. Best wishes.

  5. Ajay

    Dear At Wits End. I am experiencing similar academic woes with my son who is in 9th grade. Just a couple of hours ago I was sharing with a friend that I don’t know what else to do. I normally keep these experiences private but sharing seems to help. Thank you for sharing. these few weeks I felt like I was on an island by myself carrying this weight, worrying about his future. Thinking about where I went wrong, what am I missing, how can I deal with this without losing my mind and remaining calm.

    Thanks to everyone for all the other suggestions. You’ve given me energy to keep fighting.

    1. Steve W.

      I think that’s an important insight. We often carry burdens around thinking we’re alone, that our child is different, or their behavior is way out of the norm of what other experience. Simply knowing you’re not alone is a comfort. And so many times, I get good advice from people around me.

      good luck

  6. Jordan Snedaker

    This article was written for me. Great challenge to use multiple influence methods. Your point about the lack of personal ability shows itself as a lack of motivation because “they start to like it less”. This is a great reminder for me to also include personal ability source of influence with my son.
    Thanks for the great insights Steve!

    1. Steve W.

      Very welcome.

  7. Ron Buchenroth


    I think you missed the mark.

    I am a huge fan of Crucial Conversations. I own all the books and I talked them up often.

    Perhaps it is not what the child wants but what the parent wants that needs to be examined. In the article nothing was discussed about the parent putting the parent’s desires on the child.

    Is it that the child needs to succeed in school? First of all what is succeed and what is success?

    I had a similar situation with my youngest child, my only son. He muddled his way through grade school not turning in completed home work, reading material but not participating in class, etc.

    When my son finally reached middle school he leaned more toward the D than C range but did manage to mix up his grades with both C’s and D’s. Several attempts were made to accommodate study habits, desk, lighting, adjusting sleep, etc…

    My wife and I decided we needed to talk to him on a very serious level; and we did.

    First and foremost we drove home the fact that we loved him dearly and that no matter what happened in his life we would always love him. And this was a considerable portion of the conversation.

    We then began down the path of his education. We explained what we wanted to do was support him with what he wanted to do in life. We pointed out that some people become lawyers; some people become doctors, scientists, engineers, and so on. We pointed out that becoming a doctor required that he begin in earnest at this time in his life and this may seem absurd but if good study habits and A’s especially in the sciences were not achieved he would never succeed on this path. We discussed other educational majors and requirements that employers place on good candidates.

    However, we pointed out, the world would not and will not function without McDonald’s sandwich makers or store managers. We stressed that this would be a very honorable vocation. We pointed out that during a working life things like benefits are very favorable and if he should choose to not attend college or finish his high school he could earn a living at something like a restaurant chain. We stressed national chain that offered benefits and training that mom and pop shops do not offer. We pointed out that his vocation would not change our love for him and we would respect him no matter what his choice.

    We pointed out that what he would lose was freedom should he choose not to pursue a college education; more specifically freedom to choose a job or location to live and eventually freedom to purchase some items he may desire but that material wealth is not life.

    We returned to the fact that we would support him no matter what he decided to do with his education and life; that we would love him no matter what. The world needs good grill cooks and he could probably become a very good grill cook and work for a national change for his entire career and retire from a position of this nature.

    We on to point out that if a solid education including a college degree was achieved he would have much more latitude to choose employment and location to live. We stressed at this point that social work degrees offer less opportunity than say geology. We pointed out that something like chemistry or engineering offered a greater vocation opportunity… on it went until we ended with the concept that college careers and many professional careers begin at middle school and once again we were at his disposal to assist in whatever he needed.

    The most important thing is we were very serious and very professional. We treated him with respect and never once diminished his character.

    We ended with the decision is yours and your life is in your hands.

    We have never re-visited this conversation with our son. He finished middle school inducted in the scholastic hall of fame with a 4.0 grade average. He graduated high school as valedictorian with a perfect 4.0 grade average. He finished a 5 year chemical engineering degree and landed a contract to work for a global manufacturer 6 months prior to his graduation from college.

    It was neither my desire nor my wife’s desire. It had to be his desire.

    Your story smacks of the parents desire for the child and not once did anyone ask what the child wanted to do.

    Ron Buchenroth

  8. Rhonda F

    You may want to google Asperger Syndrome.

  9. Andrea

    1. Did you have his eyes and ears checked? Sight and hearing come first.
    2. Are his friends using drugs?
    3. Does he get outside exercise?

  10. Connie

    We struggled with our child for 6 years! A visual processing deficit was identified by a recommended psychologist. This was validated by cognitive/psycho-motor testing conducted by Brain Balance. Schools are not helpful with addressing these issues. After several sessions, our child is happier, has a better attitude about school, etc. I wish we found Brain Balance sooner. A tutor still continues to come to the house to address academic skills not acquired during previous school years. My goal is independent functioning in a college setting after high school. While I am relieved to finally know what’s wrong with our child, I am terribly disappointed at the lack of interest and resources from the local school districts.

  11. Dale

    Sounds like me in 7th grade. I did study very hard in French, but doubt if I did any of boring homework in math. As expected, afterr the 2nd marking period, I was told I has to drop French because I was still getting an E. In math I got an A for the year. In 9th grade math, my teacher was very poor, the zero I go on homework combining with the 100% on tests for a C.

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