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Staying Motivated

Does this school remind you of somewhere rather close to home?! In fact, it’s Cheadle Hulme School, the secondary school that I attended. Back in the day, I was on a free place, funded by Stockport Council because it was a ‘direct grant’ school. 

Other things were different too – it was co-ed, it was pretty shabby and during the famous power cuts of the seventies, we didn’t get sent home but had our lessons bundled up in jumpers, blazers, coats, scarves, hats and gloves! Eee, it were tough!

Tough in some ways – less so in others. I don’t remember feeling the immense pressure to perform that young people seem to be under these days. There was no such thing as an A* and getting more than 70% in anything was seen as very good indeed. Locally, it was seen as a very good school and pupils mostly went onto university, even though there weren’t so many back then. I don’t remember losing motivation around this time of year in either my GCSE year or my A level year. I don’t remember feeling utterly fed up and exhausted with the whole process. 

In contrast, at about this time of year, I start seeing boys presenting with motivation and procrastination problems and it’s a really sticky problem to help with. It’s as if the battery has run out of energy and there’s no obvious way to re-charge it. It tends to be February/March when the problem kicks in, just at the end of the winter which is energy-sapping for most of us. 

So what can you do to help?


Perhaps surprisingly, many boys don’t have a clear goal in mind, especially at GCSE level. They just some hazy vision of ‘doing well’ in their exams. Even at A-level, boys can be unclear of what their goal.

If we have no clear goal, it is very difficult to be motivated. What are we actually doing all this stuff for? Revision, because it isn’t new, can be boring. As my mother would have put it, it can be like ‘cold porridge, warmed up.’

It can be helpful then, to help our children work out what their goals are. Long term goals are great if we’ve got them. If I want to be an actor I might have a clear plan about being in as many plays as possible, researching drama schools, extending my skills to cover singing and dance as well and attending lots of performances. But if I have no idea what I want to do as a career, it’s much harder. Then I will need to find short term goals to get me through and I may need some ‘carrots’ too! I might need small goals for the week or even for each day and learn to reward myself for achieving them.

Make it ‘Playful’

One key bit of research shows us that we will be far more motivated to achieve something if it seems like ‘play’, rather than work. I will be more likely to go for a run because I see it as ‘time for me’ or ‘time off’ than if I see it as what I must do to lose weight or get fit. Anything we can do to make revision ‘playful’ then, might help. Certainly, looking back, the only revision I can remember enjoying were the bits where my mum tested me. I’d present her with a list of dates etc and she’d ask me questions about them. Not rocket science but more fun and more effective than testing myself in my room!

Here are some other suggestions you might try:

  • Read a page of a text book to your son, stopping to let him fill in key gaps.
  • Get your son to select a page of a text book and then quiz him on it
  • Make card games to test vocabulary etc
  • Ask him to explain a key concept to you, and then explain it back.
  • Challenge him to explain something, only using diagrams and no speaking. See if you can explain it back to him.
  • Play ‘I know something you don’t know’ in the car. Players take it in turns to explain things they think no one else in the car will know. If someone says they know it already, other players can test this by asking them questions about it. You can design your own points system and rules eg. No single word facts.

And so on!

‘Chunk’ it

It’s also important to help your son see the task ahead in small units or ‘chunks’. If he’s despairing and seems lost in the enormity of the task, find out what his syllabus is and help him to work out exactly what he needs to know, where he’s up to with it and how much is left to do. Subject teachers can help you with this. Start ticking things off and celebrating them! You could also consider setting up the equivalent of an Advent Calendar that counts down the days till the exams start, with small at the weekends at present, but building up to every day. If fun seems to have vanished, then it needs to be built in again. None of us feels very motivated about stuff that is dull!

Basics as usual

As ever, it’s important to keep covering the basics – enough sleep, good diet, exercise and down-time. To stay motivated, we need to be well-resourced. If resources are low, it’s in our survival instinct to hunker down and not expend energy – so our motivation will slump.

An unmotivated teenager can be really hard to reach so all these bright ideas might be like seeds falling on stony ground. You can but try. There are no sure-fire solutions but if you model a pro-active, dynamic approach to the problem, you at least have a fighting chance that you’ll make some progress.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let’s hope that message seeps through and helps re-ignite some fading batteries!

Meg Harper