Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Myth of Motivation

I came across what I consider to be an extraordinary claim that “According to the National Association of School Psychologists, ‘Most students understand a homework assignment and have the ability to perform the task but forget to bring home all of the materials required to complete it.’” The claim is in a news release that appears to have been generated by a commercial enterprise that manufactures and sells an organizational device, called a “Seat Sack,” so I understand this is not a professional piece but may be part of that company’s marketing approach. Nevertheless, I am interested in knowing the source for the statement. Is that true? Has the NASP really taken that position?

I raise the issue because several years ago Professor Jay Kuder and I presented a workshop at the annual convention of the NASP. In the presentation, we focused on the “Myth of Motivation,” and went on to explain how so-called “bad behaviors” were not the cause of homework non-compliance, but actually the result of unremitting homework pressure based on a failure to understand that the child cannot, rather than does not want to do the homework. I appreciated that the organizers of the convention gave us the opportunity to present our ideas.  We never expected that NASP would take a position one way or the other, but would rather serve as a professional forum where psychologists could share and debate different ideas.

Beyond the question of NASP’s positions on homework, I am further concerned if school psychologists as a group are not questioning the idea that children who don’t do their work really can do their work. In ways, school psychologists could be on the front line of efforts to protect and help homework-trapped children. The under-the-radar learning problems that I often refer to as contributing to homework noncompliance are typically found in the areas of working memory and processing speed. School psychologists routinely administer IQ tests in evaluating children who are having problems in school. The standard IQ test generates four composite scores, two of them being working memory and processing speed. One of my concerns and a point I make when I review records of children who are homework-trapped is that the implications of these findings (low scores on one or both of these scales) frequently get overlooked. Child study teams garner a wealth of information in their efforts to help children. Yet, they cannot help homework-trapped children if they hold onto the “myth of motivation.” They need to look at the data from a new perspective so they can see how behavioral problems are often learning problems in disguise. Otherwise, acting out becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and the child moves down a path of greater behavioral disturbance. Ironically, the child may then move into a special education class or an alternative school where homework is not given at all. It’s a curious result that the child, who could have thrived in regular classes by being given homework relief, now gets the relief he needed all along, at the cost of being excluded from the regular classrooms.

I know that many people who follow my blog have children who are homework-trapped and have been evaluated by the child study team. If you are one of those parents, I recommend that you pass my comments on to the school psychologist on your child’s child study team. I don’t know if the claim cited at the beginning of this blog post truly reflects the position of NASP. If it does, it might be helpful for your child’s school psychologist to know there is another point of view. 

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers and currently works in his own private practice.

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