My College:
Dear Adina

How Do I Motivate My Student?

Adina Glickman

Dear Adina,

When you know your child is under-performing in college what do you recommend to do? In other words, can you motivate a kid to do well and if so how?

Dear Parent,

Many students arrive at college somewhat burned out on school. They have been entirely focused on getting into college, and having poured the bulk of their energies into academic achievement for as long as they can remember, find themselves now free to do things like make friends and have fun. It’s their first time at the candy story and they’re gobbling it all up, not realizing the belly ache they’re going to have down the line.

And some students, whether or not they were all about academics in high school, simply arrive at college and take some time to re-calibrate their priorities and acclimate to the comparatively unstructured environment. Finding their feet, while a struggle to watch (and certainly a struggle to be in), is the process that helps them build the muscle they need to walk through life as independent adults.

Adjusting to college isn’t just about learning how to tackle harder academics, it’s a lot about learning how to be an adult. And one of the greatest challenges of becoming an adult is shifting the “who’s in charge of my life” from parents to self. With that shift, young people begin to ask themselves what matters to them, what they want for themselves, and what motivates them.

You can help that process by asking good questions and listening to the answers. Think of yourself as a facilitator of a process rather than an escort towards a destination. Your task is to help your student articulate and hear themselves — this is powerful fuel in their efforts to become adults.

You may want to urge them towards a particular path, and a different kind of academic achievement may reflect that, but the best motivators are the ones that come from inside ourselves. Helping your student hear their own voice is one of the best gifts you can give them!

And speaking of gifts, another one at the top of the list is the fantastic way you are believing in your child and seeing their greatest capacity even when they’re not manifesting it. That belief is the torch of parenting that lights their gnarly path towards adulthood!

But it’s not so easy to give that gift without stowaway expectations. Communicating our confidence, but inadvertently also sending the message that we’re disappointed in them when they do less than we know they can, becomes their burden and can drown out the sound of their own inner voice.

Because our kids are invested in our approval, it’s easy for their journey of learning and growing to be overshadowed by the baggage of our unmet expectations. My grandmother used to whisper to my mother (a talented but ambivalent pianist) when she was a girl and they were in the audience at piano recitals, “You should be up there — you’re much more talented than she is.” Ouch? Yay me? Is that a compliment or a criticism? I imagine my mother’s head spinning while she tried to untangle her simultaneous pride and shame.

To motivate, communicate your deep, positive regard for your student. Consider the different reactions they might have to these two questions:

“Wow, I have seen you do some tremendous things as a student. What made that possible?”
“I don’t see you doing as much in school as I know you’re capable of. What’s going on?”

The first one will allow your child to swell up and remember their best self. The second will likely leave them feeling broken and accused. I suspect you’re going for the first one.

Finally, a word about learning vs. performing. Learning is a process, and a college education is the formal and structured mechanism by which most young people engage with learning. I encourage you to keep “learning” in your viewfinder.

Performing, on the other hand, is a piano recital, singing and dancing on stage, walking the runway, or acting in a play. There is an audience, and the performer has an awareness of that audience. But students are not performers and teachers are not an audience, and if we see school as performative, too much of the student’s attention will be on whether the audience is applauding, and not whether there is good learning going on.


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Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at

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