Friday, August 17, 2012

The Myth of Motivation

I recently read The Homework Trap by Kenneth Goldberg and highly recommend it as a Back to School Teacher gift, or just as a good read for yourself if you feel you have a homework trapped kid.

The following is a guest post by Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. who is the author of The Homework Trap:How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students, and Teachers. He has 35 years of experience as a clinical psychologist. He is also the parent of three adult children, one of whom was seriously homework trapped. His website is

As the summer comes to an end, you hear a sound in the air, a collective “sigh of relief,” knowing life will soon be normal again. Sure, that family vacation was fun, but you spent the rest of the summer wondering how to manage work and home, with bored children underfoot. You chuckle remembering the office supply store commercial, before last school year began, with the parent gliding down the aisle on a shopping cart singing the Christmas tune, “It’s the best time of the year.”

Perhaps, you are that parent who looks gratefully ahead for the school year to start. Perhaps, you’re not. Perhaps, you are at home, fretting that the summer homework has not been done despite your constant reminders (should we say nagging?), knowing you’re about to face another year of frequent homework battles. Last year, you followed the teacher’s suggestions. You read the paper with its homework advice. You may have even purchased a book or two touting homework nirvana if you did it right. It didn’t work then, and you don’t believe it will work this year.

So here’s some uncommon advice. Chuck the summer homework assignment. Don’t do it for your child (you’re only teaching him to cheat), and don’t force him to get it all done (as if compliance and rushed work is what learning is about). Just, write the teacher a note: “Just to let you know, Johnny didn’t get his summer homework done.” The consequences will be small. You have bigger issues on your mind: what’s going to happen through the rest of the year.

Instead, start by observing your child as summer comes to an end. If he’s like many homework-trapped children, you will note that he is quite interested in getting his school supplies – his book bag, the notebooks, pencils and pens – so he’s ready to start his new school year. Listen for the excitement in his voice and realize that he’s really looking forward to school. And notice what he does for the first three weeks. He’ll bring home some good grades, and if he’s in middle school, he’ll bring home great grades and make you feel proud: that is until the calls start coming in. The reason I focus on middle school is because your middle school child will have several different teachers, and because of that, he’ll get all the work done for some of his teachers, and none for the rest.

Obviously, it is not your goal for your child to pass some of his courses but fail the others. But it is important to take note of what is happening with him since this early school-year behavior is an important sign to help you dispel the Myth of Motivation. Typically, parents and teachers alike see the homework-trapped child as not motivated to work. This is not true, which is why it is so important to pay particular attention to these early school year signs that he wants to do well. Homework noncompliance is almost always misread as a behavioral problem, when it truly is a learning problem in disguise. When we miss this point, the child feels trapped, acts out in response, and ends up becoming a behavioral problem in the end. School districts throughout the country are overburdening their child study teams and creating unnecessary school district-wide expenditures to manage behavioral problems that they create by not understanding why some children don’t do their work.

The issue is pace. The school day is bound by the clock. Adults work at jobs where they are paid by the hour. Yet children are sent home with a folder full of assignments that they have to keep doing until it all gets done. People do not work at the same pace, yet they can function together at school and on their jobs, and in many other tasks large and small, simply because they work on the task for a fixed period of time. Homework trapped children cannot get their work done as quickly as children who don’t have this problem. They typically have problems with working memory (sustaining attention) and processing speed (usually handwriting). If the child cannot complete the assignment in a reasonable amount of time, that child is destined to suffer harm. The child will either refuse to do the homework, at a cost to his grades; or will do the homework but fail to develop social skills.

The solution is simple: bind the homework session by the clock. Require that the child work a reasonable amount of time, knowing he’ll be totally free when that time is up. Any parent can implement this solution in his or her own home by simply setting that standard with the child. Inevitably, the child does more work than he ever did battling hours on end, regardless of the reactions he gets at school.

Obviously, we want to protect our children from failing grades when they put forth a reasonable effort, so it is important to contact the school and seek support from the teachers as well. This means asking them to accept the fact that you as the parent are in charge of your home, and want a reasonable adjustment in the grade penalties for work that is not done.

In the end, you may need to institutionalize these recommendations in a formal plan called a 504. The specifics are found in my book, The HomeworkTrap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students, and Teachers. But first and foremost, don’t let anyone say that your child is not motivated, or that he’s any lazier than any other child. The Myth of Motivation can get quickly asserted without considering the other signs that your child really wants to do well.


  1. My son is in 11 th grade and basically does not do homework. He recently was asked "How could he get a 90% on his Spanish final and a D in the class?" The answer, He did not do his homework.

  2. Whoa Nelly, that's a lot of hovering over in my book. Give your student some credit--how old are they? We tend to do waaaay to much for these able bodied people. Yes, "people". Treat them like the competent citizens they are, and they will respond in kind.

    This is how we have ended up with far too many in college without a clue what to do. Here's a recent quote from our local paper about graduation rates for our local state university,

    "about two-thirds of our incoming freshmen, even those who fully meet admissions requirements, require remediation in English and/or math."

    That's horrible. Our students need to do their failing earlier so they don't fail so often in college. Now why the universities have admitted these individuals that need remediation in the first place is another story.

    The moral of this story is let them be responsible early. We do them no favor by doing for them what they are capable of doing for themselves.

  3. We should certainly let kids be responsible for themselves, but the psychology of behavior simply does not support the current approach as furthering that goal. When penalties are out of line with the infraction involved, they reinforce different behaviors than originally intended. A parent who sees a child's grade go down from A to B+ or B because the homework was not done may exercise restraint (assuming that parent is not hovering by nature). The parent who sees the grade go from A to D or F will have a different reaction. The child who gets a mild penalty that can be overcome by starting to do the work is more likely to start to do the work than a child who is facing a stream of incoming assignments along with a mountain of makeup work to do. Kids who are consistently homework trapped don't get out of the trap easily without time limits to assignments and penalty reductions. I agree that there is a big problem that kids are not prepared for county college work. What is interesting is that these kids enroll even though they are likely to fail. Why do they enroll? Perhaps they are more motivated than people thought. I trust teachers and think that if they put their energy into using the time they have with the child in class, i.e. teaching, more kids would be prepared for the next stages of their lives. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.