Chapter 4: Troubleshooting Motivational Problems

[A note about gender language: he and she are used in alternating sections of the book. This section uses the masculine.]

The best way to deal with most motivation and behavior problems is by giving students a taste of success. That success, along with an adult’s undivided attention for an hour or two a week, is a powerful motivator for most teens. Sometimes, though, a young person is so caught up in negative attitudes about himself, school, tutoring, or life in general, that he needs more than the ordinary interventions. Some problems are so serious, they’re beyond the scope of tutoring. Children with mental illness may not be good candidates for tutoring, and the tutor may need to bow out of those cases.

On the other hand, for students who have more run of the mill motivation or behavior problems, the structure and positive emotional environment of tutoring can be life-changing. Tutoring can sometimes even accomplish more than could be achieved in psychotherapy. To quote my husband Terry, a clinical child psychologist for 30 years, “Tutoring is the treatment of choice for some teens.”

If you do take on students with problems that affect behavior and motivation, the beginning sessions are important for setting the tone of tutoring and establishing expectations. The tutor must intervene in a timely way because allowing problems to continue will reinforce the student’s existing patterns of avoidance and failure.

Here are a few pointers for troubleshooting the more difficult motivational and attitude problems you will face in your tutoring.

Problem: The student doesn’t see himself as a learner. “I’m not really into school. I’m just a . . . (punk, redneck, artist, athlete, other).”

Arrange an activity in which the student is likely to succeed and then comment on the results. Be circumspect, though. The student may feel that if he “gives in” and does his schoolwork correctly he has lost face.

Adolescents sometimes select identities the way they choose clothes, and with their tendency towards either-or thinking they may not realize they could be artistic and smart, for instance. Help students see that they can be inclusive. Through journaling and discussion, for example, one of my students discovered he could be both a disreputable looking skateboarder on weekends and an “A” student full time. As always, use the student’s own interests to involve him.

  • Help a future artist write a business plan.
  • Ask an athlete to write an essay on steroid use or nutritional supplements.

A student who is motivated by the typical TV fare of sex and violence may be able to shift gears enough to read a novel about war and scandal.

Problem: The student is hyperactive or overly distractible. He interrupts, changes the subject, and can’t stick with his reading.


Set limits. “Don’t interrupt me. I listen to you carefully when you speak and I want you to do the same with me.”

Use a carrot and a stick approach. “I see that it’s hard for you to stay on the subject. Let’s stick with this for the next ten minutes and then we’ll have some time for whatever you want to talk about.”

Or, “I notice that you don’t like listening to explanations. I’ll keep it short, but I must have your attention. If you’re not focused, I’ll feel I need to keep explaining, and you won’t like that.”

Discuss the problem head-on. “I can see that you’re distractible. What will help you pay better attention?”

Possible aids:

  • background music
  • short breaks

Use physical prompts. Touch the child’s arm, look directly at him and say, “We’re talking about X right now. Let’s stick with it.” Or tapping the page say, “Keep your eyes here, please.” Direct him to, “Move up closer so you can see better.”

Medication can be helpful, but the topic is controversial. Avoid bringing it up directly. If nothing else works and the child is so hyperactive that it affects his quality of life, you might refer the family to an MD experienced with kids and who is known to have a balanced approach with medication. If the parents seem receptive, you might recommend a meditation class for the teen.

Problem: The student is irritable and dismissive.


Discuss the problem directly.

Tutor: “You seem annoyed. What’s wrong?”

Student: “My mom is making me come here.”

Tutor: “What would make you happier about being here?”

Student: “Nothing.” Or “Just help me get this paper done.” Or “Maybe if I didn’t have to repeat this grade.”

Tutor: Acknowledges what the student has said and adds, “I’ll try to keep the lesson as interesting as I can while still having you learn what you need to, but I’d like you to keep an open mind.”

Get the student started on creative writing or some other form of expression so he can get his feelings out in an acceptable way.

For a passive-aggressive or openly angry student, psychotherapy may be helpful. Whether to refer to a psychotherapist or not depends on the openness of the parents and the availability of a good therapist. In any case, wait to refer until you have built a trusting relationship with the family.

Problem: The student is dreamy or “spacey” and unfocused on his work, perhaps gazing around the room. The student’s eyes may even seem unfocused.


Have the student read for a purpose. Ask him to read so he can do something afterward, such as draw a picture from written directions, make a map, illustrate what he’s read, or act out a part in a skit or dialog.

Teach a subject that requires focus to understand, such as parts of speech or rules for syllable division, and expect the student to get it. “I’m going to explain something rather complicated, and you will need to focus your brain completely to understand it. When I’m done I’ll ask you to explain it back to me.” (This may take several tries.)

Comment on the student’s lack of focus in a nonjudgmental way, but explain that he’ll need to focus in tutoring. “I see you drifting pleasantly through life. Sometimes that’s okay, but I’d like you to try focusing more in the tutoring sessions. Focusing your brain is similar in some ways to focusing your eyes.”

Explain that expectations are different in tutoring than in school. “At school, if you don’t pay attention you might get a bad grade and your mom might be unhappy, but nothing bad is going to happen. In tutoring, it’s different: There’s no bad grade, but we’ll go over things until you get them. If you don’t want to listen to me, don’t tune out. The way not to have to hear my voice is to focus your brain and pick up on things the first time around. If you do that, in a way you’re ‘training me to be quiet’.”

Find out what the student’s responsibilities are at home. Doing demanding, complex tasks can teach concentration and initiative. Parents may want to come in each week to discuss progress at home. There’s more in later chapters on using household chores to promote learning.

If the student is missing work at school, teach study skills, including keeping a planner to track assignments. Check the planner and notebook each week in tutoring and allow class time to organize.

Some students read so slowly they nearly fall asleep over their books. These students are more likely to understand better if they read faster. You can teach speed reading later. For now, explain the value of speeding up, and with the student’s agreement, put time limits, or at least set goals, on passages he or she will read in the tutoring session.

Ask students who are slow to respond, “Are you stuck or do you just need time to think?” The question will probably cut down on daydreaming without interrupting students unnecessarily.

Guided reading will help: “Read this paragraph and tell me three things you thought were interesting or important. At the end of this section, I’ll ask you who was in the scene, what each person said, and how he or she felt.”

Problem: The student is disorganized, does little studying, and fails to hand in work at school.

Interventions: Since most studying happens (or doesn’t happen) at home, talk to parents about appropriate “sticks and carrots” they can use to establish good study behavior. Instead of giving direct advice on parenting that can backfire, simply tell parents what has worked for other families in similar circumstances. Present some choices, then let them select a course of action themselves.

Learning about the rules, expectations, interventions, rewards, and punishments that work best for a variety of families will require practice on your part, but you can start now to build your experience. Begin by asking the questions, “How do you handle time (homework time, TV time, computer games, etc.) in your family?” and, “How does it work to do it that way?” Your mental file of useful parenting tips will grow along with your tutoring experience.

Here is a list of homework policies, rules, and guidelines that have grown out of my conversations with teens and their families regarding study problems.

  • Most students already know what needs to be done to solve their own study problems, so discuss possible solutions with students first. Most kids can come up with surprisingly good plans for themselves when asked and, given some encouragement, may even stick with them.
  • Students who frequently miss turning in school assignments, either because they’re resistant or disorganized, can be asked to keep an assignment notebook that includes the signatures of their schoolteachers as well as a parent. (One mother I know pays the student a set amount for each signature, including one from the tutor!)
  • If kids are recalcitrant or just easily tempted, don’t allow them to study in their own rooms. Instead, have them study in a shared family area, such as the dining room, then ask parents to be sure to control the traffic and noise in that area.
  • Some families lead lives that are just too chaotic to allow teens to study well at home. Help these parents make other arrangements.
  • I occasionally have a teen study at my office while I tutor other students. I charge a small fee and check on the student’s progress before, during, and after the study session.
  • Some families arrange to have a college age study helper take the teen to the library or a café to study.
  • If students study in their rooms, work with them to minimize distractions. Ask them to give up the cell phone, the computer, and the TV, if those are in the bedroom.

If a student seems receptive, the following guidelines may also be helpful.

  • It’s best to study in the same time and place every day. Your mind will be “in the habit” of thinking at that time just as your stomach expects to eat at a certain time. (The teen should help decide where and when to study and be held to his decision.)
  • Treat studying as you would exercise. Here are some pointers from an article in the Rocky Mountain Health Plans, Good Health newsletter (2005), on how to stay physically fit. The same principles apply to mental “workouts.”
    • Don’t overdo it. Gradually increase the length of your workout and its intensity.
    • Divide and conquer. Do three 20 minute workouts a day instead of one 60 minute session.
    • Create structure. Exercise with a buddy or head for the gym. (In our case, set up a standing study date or go to the library.)
    • Set measurable goals. For individuals trying to become fit, this might mean losing a pound a week. For a student, it could be completing all the reading assignments for history class for the week.

Go over some of these guidelines together, choose one or two goals to work on at a time, then review your student’s progress at each lesson.

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