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Vocational guidance - The de-motivated student PDF Print E-mail

By David E. Harrison

I am always appalled when a student says to me "I'm not much good at anything at school." I am even more dismayed when a parent says, in Johnny's presence "he's not much good at anything" or even worse perhaps, "he's not nearly as good as his brother/sister."

Such instances are disturbing because students build their "self-images" from the attitudes and feedback they receive from parents, teachers, peers and others. Most frequently parents and teachers are involved, but fellow students' attitudes can also have strong effects, positive or negative.

Almost every student has a special skill or talent. As most parents will recall, when you were at school a variety of talents was very obvious in your classmates. Unfortunately, schools tend to favour "high pay-off achievements" for the school. Accordingly they recognize and reward a rather narrow range of academic and sporting talents. (There are of course, some superb exceptions of schools which try to identify and "bring out" the best in all of their students.) The student who is left behind by the school's talent identification process tends to over-react either by "giving up" or by super-compensating. We need not worry too much about the relatively rare "super-compensator" who brags later in life "I didn't do much at school, but now I employ the PhD's."

Unfortunately, the students who " give up" are a much larger group, illustrated by Peter, whose classmates used to await his arrival in the morning so that they could quickly copy down his maths homework, which he invariably produced 100% correct with a minimum of effort. One day a "counsellor" told Peter that he had little chance of obtaining more than a couple of 'O' levels. Peter believed him. He gave up school, and tragically drowned, despite being a talented swimmer, in California.

Peter could have become a maths lecturer at university level! My advice to parents and teachers alike is "hold back your condemnations and criticisms, and do your best to find the special talents which you can acknowledge, reward and encourage." After all, what proportion of students are motivated, rather than discouraged, by being told they are useless?

Encourage sibling support

  • Siblings can be helpful and supportive.
  • Generate an atmosphere of support - family as "team."
  • Do not create or encourage competition unless all competitors benefit ie if one gets continuously left behind, change the game!
  • Share books, computers and other resources.
  • Hold little reward/congratulations ceremonies.

Encourage Teacher Support
When Johnnie comes home and says "Teacher said I am not one of her bright sparks" or the equivalent, the parent, and the school, has a teacher problem!

Students know the good teachers.
The school probably knows the good teachers
But - the school does not get much feedback on "teacher damage". Unfortunately, teachers who damage are inclined to indulge their habit and complaints linked to individual students can lead to victimization and embarrassment of the student.

I have vast respect for the teaching profession as a whole. Teachers are over-worked, under-recognized and under-paid by society for the enormously important work they do. This article has focused on some of the negative consequences that I have repeatedly come across as a vocational psychologist which have been caused by a small but significant proportion of teachers who deviate from their obligations to their students.

Nowadays there are excellent facilities for free self-help available on the internet. Please use these wonderful resources.

David E. Harrison is a consulting Industrial & Vocational Psychologist. Website: Email:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   Tel: 04-700867

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