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Dr. Michael Whitley: Motivating students to improve achievement

Dr. Michael D. Whitley is a nationally known psychologist specializing in helping children, adolescents, and adults overcome underachievement and discouragement. He is the author of a number of books, including "Bright Minds, Poor Grades". He joined the chat room from Chicago.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Michael Whitley, and welcome

DR. MICHAEL WHITLEY: Well, hello out there, parents. I assume most of you are parents, and welcome to the chat on motivating students. I'm a psychologist in Houston, and my specialty is the area of underachievement and student motivation.

CNN: What are some of the motivational problems we see with kids as they go back to school?

WHITLEY: In the beginning of the school year, many students are highly motivated and promise to do better than they have before. You could say that there are no motivational problems. But those problems begin to show up somewhere after the first 3-5 weeks of school, when kids start missing homework assignments, lying about school work, becoming lazy and disinterested in the work, and the grades begin to fall. Parents have to do more and more pushing and nagging to get things done. So, motivational problems usually lead to underachievement and even failure in a classroom. This drives parents crazy, because the kids are usually bright and have good potential.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Whitley, do you see these same motivational issues in children that are home schooled?

WHITLEY: Many children who are home schooled begin that process because they've had moderate to severe motivational problems in school. They just don't get work done. They may show the same problems at home, but the parents have more ability to supervise and push them in home schooling. The difficulty with home schooling, however, for these kinds of kids, is that they are dependent in their functioning anyway, and home schooling tends to promote that. For instance, if kids won't work on their own, home schooling may not solve that problem. The idea of my work is for parents to teach their children to motivate themselves to be successful, which is an inner change in the child. My goal for parents is to change the child, not just the geography or the environment. Where they go to school isn't as important as the child learning how to work consistently, and enjoy that work.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What can be done to motivate children that are given an overabundance of homework everyday?

WHITLEY: I'm not sure what an overabundance of homework is. Kids who are having motivational problems will sometimes turn a 20 minute assignment into a two-hour ordeal. They procrastinate, dawdle through assignments, trying to avoid school work as much as possible. Only in elite schools do we expect three and four hours of homework a night for most kids. Interestingly, well motivated children handle that pretty well. However, I must say this, that one of the key skills in developing a work ethic in kids is to teach them how to connect positive feelings with doing ordinary work. Kids with motivational problems constantly connect negative feelings such as boredom and resentment to their school learning and schoolwork throughout the year. The answer is to teach kids how to change their own feelings and become responsible for themselves.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about parents who have the same problem themselves?

WHITLEY: Well, I get that question all the time, and it illustrates that underachievement problems in grade school, junior high and high school are not easily overcome just because you get older. The same techniques that parents apply to their children in school to help them change, parents have applied to themselves. I have letters from parents around the country, or emails from them, saying they use the steps in my book on themselves, and have been able to change their own underachievement trends in their lives, and have become happier. So, it's nice that some parents can use it to improve their own lives and happiness.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is having your children involved in school sports a positive thing for them in relation to their school participation?

WHITLEY: That's a good question. I would say in general, it's good for children to be involved in the extra-curricular activities of school. However, extra-curricular activities are not a substitute for the main goal of school, which is sustained achievement at the child's potential. Good athletes who are poor students are one injury away from having no athletic career. Therefore they must have a strong work ethic when it comes to the classroom as well.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are some fundamental things you think children should begin the school year with that gets them actively involved in school?

WHITLEY: The first thing I think parents should do is have the child list their classes, math, English, science, history, etc., and beside each class, state the goal, the grade, in other words, the child wants to see on his first report card. Few parents, and practically no teachers except those I work with ask their children what they want to make on a report card.

The second step is for parents to get into a daily dialogue about each class with their children. It takes about five minutes. The parents should ask about homework that night, if grades were handed back, if there are tests coming up, if there are tests, what grade the child wants to make on that particular test. And similar questions for class projects.

I would recommend that parents follow up those questions by checking with the school and the teachers. and get the answer to two basic questions from the teacher. First, did my child turn all his homework in this week? That's a yes or no. And two, what test or quiz grades has the teacher handed back this week? This provides the parents with an immediate check on the child's honesty about school issues.

Here's the main problem. If parents can't get good answers, correct answers from their kids, they can't get to the heart and soul of an underachiever's real problem. Those always lie in a child's emotions and feelings, and core level values and thoughts they have about school, which they generally hide from parents like they hide their grades. Once parents confront the lying, and that begins to change, most kids will open up and talk more deeply to their parents about motivational issues, and that's what allows change to occur. Surprisingly, traditional parent motivational techniques like rewards for grades, grounding for grades, tutoring, logic, lectures, or just letting them fail, are not only inadequate for changing unmotivated students, but may even make things worse.

CNN: How can parents keep from being frustrated by children who lack motivation?

WHITLEY: You can't. But what I've found over the years is that parents must have powerful techniques that reach inside the child's mind, and work there, so that the child's communication with the parents about school deepens, the child discloses more about themselves to the parents. In order to do that, parents must swallow a little frustration, and become extremely positive. In my book, I call this the Mr. Rogers technique, patterned after Mr. Rogers on PBS. It's a gentle, kind, but firm insistence on honesty, value and work. Yelling, screaming and punishment will not do to build a strong work ethic in kids. If it did, America would be full of A students, because everyone has tried that. It's not just a philosophical or psychological issue, it's a deeply practical matter. Let's not do things that just don't work.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

WHITLEY: I think that the main focus of my book is for parents who are caring and concerned about their children, who are willing to learn a few new ideas, and apply them and watch their children grow. I think the main thing is for parents to have faith and persistence, and to keep working hard and to fight the battles in raising children today. Even if they lose a few battles, they'll normally end up winning the war, which is to have strong, healthy, competent children who know how to bring a sense of joy to their accomplishments.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Michael Whitley,

WHITLEY: Goodbye!

Dr. Michael Whitley joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Tuesday, August 28, 2001.

• 'Bright Minds, Poor Grades'

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