The Difference That Makes The Difference

One of the most frustrating experiences that a parent can have is when their child is experiencing difficulty in school. Most parents don’t know what to do or know where to turn for help. The most obvious place for help would be to talk to the teachers at the school. However, many times the teachers don’t know what to do either. Part of the problem is that teachers are not extensively trained to deal with students who are struggling in school. It is a very complex problem and there are many reasons a student might struggle.

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Blame is everywhere. Everybody is pointing fingers at somebody else as the person responsible for the struggle. Parents many times blame the teachers or the school system. Teachers many times blame the parents or lack of family support or the lack of funding for adequate supplies and books. EVERYBODY blames the student. They accuse the student of not trying hard enough or of being lazy or of not caring. They often label the student with a learning disability and put him or her in a special class. Meanwhile, the student continues to struggle and the frustration level of all continues to grow.

Most solutions are aimed at changing behaviors or the environmental constraints of the student. We may ground them, or take away their TV privileges, or make them study longer, or monitor their schoolwork to make sure it is turned in. We sometimes change teachers or schools, or have them do their homework in a different setting, or have them do homework at a different time. Most of the time, these attempts do not provide a long-term solution. It produces a lot of policing on the part of the parent and a lot of bickering between the parent and student. This bickering causes hurt feelings and escalating frustration for both the student and parent.

Maybe it is time to look for solutions in different places. Maybe the real answer for how to help struggling students is not by changing behaviors or environmental constraints but lies in how the student perceives school and learning. In my opinion, there are five primary areas within which problems in school originate.

They Are:


I will cover a couple of these area in this article.


Make sure the student has an appropriate way to think ABOUT school and learning or certain subjects. The way a student thinks about school establishes whether or not school is meaningful. If school has no positive meaning, the student has no reason to excel. If school has a negative meaning, it becomes an incubator for behavior problems. A useful metaphor is “Not knowing what school is about is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. Without the picture on the box, the individual pieces have no meaning. When you have the picture on the box, it shows you how the pieces fit together—how different parts of the puzzle relate to each other.”

You can find out what their attitude is by getting an answer to the question “What is the meaning of school to you?” If they say things like: “It has no meaning.” or “I don’t know.” or “I get to see my friends.” or “I have to go.” then they will drift through school in a meaningless fashion. At best, they will have to force themselves to do the academic tasks assigned to them.

School will be no fun at all. If they say: “School is boring, I hate it!” or “The teachers pick on me.” or some other angry variation of that, then school will be one behavior problem after another. If their answer is some variation of “It is where I get to go and learn new things.” then learning and school will have a positive meaning and will be fun to them.

An academic level where attitude and meaning really makes a difference is in college. Many times students will enroll in college because it is expected of them or because they want to be college educated. However, many times they do not know yet what they want in a profession or career. They have not yet figured out what they want to do with their life. When this happens, many times the course work will have no meaning to them. So they have to force themselves to study.

If they haven’t yet learned good learning strategies, the more complex course work is even harder for them to deal with than it was in high school. This, coupled with the lack of meaning of the courses makes college a very frustrating experience. Add to this frustration the experience of being on their own for the first time and it can sometimes make their social life far more tempting than studying. Their grades go down even further. They subsequently drop out thinking that college is not for them.

Another interesting phenomena I find when I work with students and their parents is the idea that they either like or dislike certain subjects. The way they talk about it makes it sound like it is genetic or some natural law. They will make comments like: “I don’t like math and science but I like English and history.” Guess which subjects they do the best in? Liking a subject or not is a matter of perception—and perception can be changed.

Think of the times in your life when you shifted your perception of a subject. It might have been a teacher’s influence, or the way a friend explained it, or you found a sub-part of the subject that caught your interest. One of the factors that greatly influences if we like a subject or not is how we think ABOUT it. If we have a poor way to think about it, then we generally will not like it because it will not have meaning for us. If we have a good or useful way to think about it, then we will like it because we see it’s purpose.


Make sure the student is turned on to school and the various learning tasks that he or she is assigned to do. They become turned on when school or the tasks serve THEIR highly valued criteria. Criteria are what are important to the student. They are the standards by which behavior is evaluated and judged. If a student values learning or doing well or being competent, for example, and if they know how to achieve those criteria, then they will be turned on to school.

If a student has not yet made the connection to their own criteria, then they will not be turned on to school. They will be very indifferent and passive. Many athletes are turned on to sports because they value the competition and value being “the best” but are turned off of classroom activities because they have not yet found a way to be competitive or the best in the classroom. Sometimes the link that is missed is that they were coached in sports as to HOW to excel and have not yet been coached as to how to learn in the classroom. Other examples of criteria might be: to be creative, to be independent, to be responsible, to be liked, to be unique, to belong, etc.

Turning students on to school or learning or homework or some school task is relatively easy to do. The art of doing this is three simple steps:

1. Identify the student’s hierarchy of highly valued criteria.
2. Connect the task to the hierarchy.
3. Build the motivation by pumping the connection.

Again, criteria are those values that are important to the student. They are the standards by which he or she will measure themselves.

To find the hierarchy of highly valued criteria, listen for times (maybe in other contexts) in which the student is emotional--“turned on” or “turned off” of something. If they are “turned on” it means some criterion has been met or satisfied. If they are “turned off,” it means that some criterion has been violated or not satisfied. When you find a moment like that, get an answer to the question “What is it about (turn on or turn off), that is so important to you?” Then listen for criteria.

When you think you have a criterion, verify it by curiously asking the question “So, (criterion) is important to you?” You should get a full bodied, positive response. If you get a weak or wishy/washy response, you do not have one of their criteria.

When you get the full bodied, positive response, you can build the hierarchy by asking “What is it about (criterion) that is so important to you?” Again, listen for criteria. The second criterion should be of higher value. The first criterion actually serves the second.

Continue this process to build the hierarchy until you get a circular answer or self-concept type criteria (like “I feel good about myself.” or “I like myself.”) A circular answer would be “When I do well in school, I feel good about myself and when I feel good about myself, I do well in school.”

As you are building the hierarchy, continually ask yourself the question “How can school or the task serve these criteria?” When you get a hunch or an idea, ask questions like “Have you ever thought about the idea that (task) can help you achieve your (criteria)?” They will sometimes say no, but you can see the wheels turning and the excitement building as they think about the possibilities.

Continue to build the hierarchy and talk about the connections (or get them to talk about the connections) and their excitement will build even more until they will be “really pumped up!”

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