“Hi, I am the parent of a 13-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome. He was unable to cope with school so he now has a tutor come to the house each day for one hour. He is very withdrawn and this is worse when his tutor comes. How do I get him to engage with the tutor and what advice can you give me to motivate him to see the point of engaging? I’ve tried reward charts already and this didn’t work. He’s very stubborn when he doesn’t want to do something.” — Helen
Motivating teenagers can be so challenging! Here are a few tips on what you can do to build his motivation:
- Build rapport between him and the tutor. I don’t know if the tutor came over one day and just started drilling him with work, or if the tutor first took the time to get to know your son. But, building a relationship is key! In my line of work, we train staff to “pair themselves with reinforcement” before placing demands on a child. Pairing looks like having fun. For your son maybe it’s spending a day doing his favorite activities, or making his favorite food together, or talking about his preferred topics. What would be even better is once the tutor finds what interests your son if he or she could bring over their own items that would interest him. For example: if your son loves video games perhaps the tutor can come over with his or her collection and he can earn playing one after his session is over. Or if he loves cookies, perhaps the tutor can bring over some home-made treats. Think of “pairing” as associating oneself with highly preferred items, topics, activities, etc. Put yourself in his shoes…are you more likely to comply with a demand given by a friend or by a stranger? We adhere to instructions and participate more with those we have a relationship Build that rapport so he learns to like this person.
- Ask him what the problem is. Sounds obvious, right? But have you really given him a chance to explain why he shuts down when the tutor comes? Maybe he’s not confident and needs to be built up and shown how successful he can be. Maybe the tutor wears perfume or cologne that drives him nuts and he can’t stand it. Maybe the tutor reminds him of someone he doesn’t like. Who knows what the reason could be, but sometimes there’s a simple explanation. Encourage him to open up and validate his concerns.
- Try the reward system again. For your son, an actual chart may not be necessary, depending on his likes and dislikes. I have had some teenagers who do well with charts and others who have told me it’s for little kids and they don’t want one. Regardless, you can still do a reward system.
- Find what he is truly motivated by. This may be something he already gets or it may be an external reward you will incorporate into his daily routine. For example: If every day he gets to surf the Internet for an hour after the tutor comes, you can use that as the reward and make it contingent on participating with the tutor. “If you participate then you can have one hour on the Internet.” This goes the opposite way too; if he does not participate, he does not get one hour on the Internet. Or, if nothing in his current day-to-day routine is very motivating for him, introduce something new. Maybe five days in a row of participating with the tutor earns him going out to dinner on Friday night. Or maybe he can earn a movie night. Whatever will pique his interest, make it contingent on engaging with the tutor and getting his work done.
- Start small! We want him to be successful, so maybe for the first week or two of doing the reward system, you ask him only to participate. Then once that is consistent you can change the expectation to include completing all his work. Or perhaps you start the token system on a Friday and let him earn his favorite restaurant for dinner if he does well that day in tutoring. Then the following week you can expect him to do well Thursday and Friday to earn dinner out. Then slowly increase to all five days to earn dinner out. Progression is key. We can’t ask him to do too much at once. This will only frustrate him more.
- Make sure the reward is SOLELY contingent on the tutoring behaviors. Unfortunately, I have worked with families who tell their kids “You will earn ____ if you _____.” The child does exactly what they were supposed to do, except later that day they do something the parent doesn’t like (completely unrelated to the contingency), and the parent tells the child they will no longer earn the agreed-upon reward. Stick to your word! If you tell him he will earn something for participating with the tutor, he needs to actually earn it when he participates. This agreement is separate of, and has nothing to do with, other behaviors. So let’s say he does his work and engages with the tutor, but then later that day he refuses to clean his room. I would encourage you to STILL follow through with whatever he earned for doing well in tutoring. If you use what he earned from tutoring to punish a completely separate behavior it will not only frustrate him and make you a liar, but it will destroy the entire concept of the reward system. Keep it black and white and remember that what he earned was specifically for the tutoring behavior.
I hope these ideas are helpful for you and your son. Remember to communicate with him as well and try to understand what is holding him back. If being withdrawn is a persistent problem for him you may consider seeking additional help to work on this. Applied Behavior Analysis therapy can be an effective way to build relationship skills. Social skills groups and traditional psychotherapy are also other ways to assist in this area. We wish you all the best!