Peter Pans don't need Tinkerbells

29th April 2005 at 01:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

How do you motivate children to learn? The answer to this question is the holy grail for teachers; after all, there are few things as satisfying as watching a classroom of students going about their work eagerly and enthusiastically.

Psychologists have come up with a radical analysis of why it can be so hard to energise pupils. The problem, they say, is rooted in Peter Pan syndrome: some children are quite happy being children, and aren't keen to grow up.

As educational progress is associated with the maturing process, they resist it. In other words, they are motivated to fail.

Growing up into a psychologically well-adjusted adult means learning to shoulder responsibility, but many children are afraid of adulthood and taking on the burden of accountability. They fight growing up by seeking to fail.

A common indicator of the syndrome is a pupil denying that their poor performance is their fault. They will say, "The exam didn't cover what we were told it would", or "everybody did badly anyway", or "moving schools means it's too hard to catch up". They may genuinely believe they want to succeed and so are convinced by their own excuses. They believe their predicament is beyond their control; they are innocent victims of circumstances. They won't fight their way out of difficult situations because they know that as long as they don't grow up, their parents will look out for them.

Good parents instinctively want to care for and bail out their children, regardless of their age. As a result, children can become complacent, reasoning that the easiest option is to let their parents continue doing the job they seem to be so good at: taking responsibility for their offspring's future.

Because the underachiever is afraid of success, the usual strategies - offering rewards, threatening punishment, assigning a dedicated teacher - do not work. None addresses the self-deception and fear of success that are at the root of the problem. It's all too easy for successful adults to forget that growing up can be terrifying and that some young people don't want to do it (at a conscious andor subconscious level).

To tackle Peter Pan syndrome, stop offering solutions to your pupils' problems. Instead, let the child come up with his or her own solution; this helps them to start taking responsibility for their lives. Imposing solutions merely allows a Peter Pan to continue to fail; it's your fault if your solution wasn't good enough. The child's solutions might initially be impractical, but it's important that teachers resist the temptation to intervene. The child needs to learn - often painfully through trial and error - what constitutes a good solution and what doesn't. Eventually he or she will come back and ask for advice, but by then will be more motivated to accept adult help.

The next stage is "excuse busting", which involves questioning a child relentlessly about their poor performance, and then demolishing the excuses. Why, for instance, do other children perform better under more difficult circumstances?

The final step is to play the game of "consequences". You don't criticise a child for doing badly in exams but instead talk about the consequences: a badly paid job, poor accommodation, even being less attractive to the opposite sex. This game is all about bringing the future nearer. It links the future to the present so that a child confronts more clearly his or her attitude to the messy business of growing up.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals in London. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, pound;12.99). Email:

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