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Ask The Expert: Smart Kid, Bad Grades. How Can I Help?

Dear Your Teen:

My 17-year-old son is a senior in high school. He’s a smart teenager, but he’s inconsistent in his work ethic and has become comfortable with getting okay to low grades. We’ve tried taking away phones, privileges, and offering incentives— it doesn’t seem to matter. What should we do?

EXPERT | Mandi Silverman, Psy.D.

This is a great question, especially as your son is almost college age, when adolescents need to create their own structure and motivate themselves to succeed. I recommend talking to him directly about what may be getting in the way of him succeeding at school. If he doesn’t have an answer, I suggest you look at some common things that can hinder performance including changes in mood, sleep patterns, social demands/difficulties, and self-esteem.

Bringing Structure To Your Son’s School Life

If these don’t seem to be a problem, consider discussing how you can structure your son’s nights and weekends so that he can get his work done more effectively. This can include implementing a schedule with certain hours dedicated for studying and others for free time. Moreover, I always tell parents that it’s important to give positive attention whenever your teenager takes the initiative to work on personal goals. So, as you help your son work towards a more structured schedule, look for any and all opportunities to give him praise for his effort, and high school motivation. You can also  continue to offer incentives for doing well in school and raising those low grades. These are always more effective than removing privileges when things do not go smoothly.

If this still isn’t working, you may want to contact the school to see if there is any information that you aren’t getting about his high school motivation. It may be helpful to work together with the school team to assist your son with these academic challenges. And if all else fails, you can seek professional help from a licensed clinician who can systematically walk you through the necessary steps to see positive change.

Mandi Silverman, PsyD

Dr. Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA, is a clinical and school psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.