As parents, we want our kids to be motivated in school to do their best work. We know good grades and hard work open doors to more opportunities, so we emotionally invest in our kids’ efforts. But what happens when a child balks about spelling lists, avoids math facts, or can’t seem to organize herself? Motivation is a slippery idea that creates power struggles between kids and parents. What adults may not recognize is that kids often are motivated, just not by the same things as their parents. Here’s what experts say about motivation, and tips for helping your child reach her potential in school.
Understand Children’s Development
As little ones, children typically start out being enthusiastic about school. The elementary classroom is new and exciting, and young kids thrive on approval, so earning good marks from teachers and praise from parents can motivate them. Kids still need help developing habits for success, however, so setting up structures for homework and school success is key.
If your child exhibits low enthusiasm, it may have to do with genetics. A new study finds that genetics play a role in personality differences around motivation for school; 40 percent to 50 percent of the differences can be traced to inheritance from a parent. This doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t encourage, but it might help to keep this information in mind.
By middle school, students have more capacity for intrinsic, or internal, motivation. But research shows that motivation for school wanes in this age group, in part because instruction becomes more lecture-based, says Ann Dolin, founder and president of tutoring company Educational Connections Inc. A 2013 Gallup Student Poll surveying thousands of students showed that eight out of 10 elementary students were engaged with school. By middle school, engagement dropped to six out 10 students, and by high school, four out of 10. Even if kids are successful students, their motivation may take a dip. Less successful students might check out.
Know the Role of Executive Functioning
Some kids are naturally organized and have no trouble figuring out the right way to study effectively. Others are scattered and don’t know how to break down their homework. Executive function skills, which also help regulate emotion, attention span, and perseverance, reside in the brain’s frontal cortex, which doesn’t reach maturity until people are in their 20s or even 30s. It can be a long road for some kids.
Middle school is a tricky transition; even the most organized child can struggle with managing multiple classrooms, a locker, and more demanding schoolwork. This isn’t the time to step back. Also, “normalize” the new experiences by talking about the difficulty of changing classes, says Russell Hyken, an educational consultant and psychotherapist and the author of The Parent Playbook. Ask your child, “What’s that like for you? That was pretty hard for me.”
Identify Your Expectations
It’s easy to fall into the mindset of believing that kids are capable of so much more—many of us do it—and setting up negative interactions. “We think our level of motivation should be our child’s level of motivation, but it doesn’t work like that,” Dolin says. “Motivation works best when kids aren’t pressured into something they may not be naturally interested in.”
It’s also easy to believe that when kids forget, don’t follow through, or get distracted, they simply don’t care. But remember, these skills are developmental. If a student has an unidentified learning disorder or falls behind on tough academics, he needs your help and may not realize it or want to admit it. Aim for positive interaction, Dolin recommends, even if your child is driving you crazy. Put five pennies in your pocket and when you catch your child exerting effort or exhibiting good behavior, move a penny to the other pocket. You’ll know you’ve acknowledged your child positively five times during the day.
Tips for Success
Parents ask Dolin all the time how they can motivate their child. “There’s no switch you can flip to truly motivate your child,” she says, “but you can make the environment ripe for motivation.” Here’s what she and Hyken suggest.
Be a good listener. Kids with low motivation get frustrated easily, so it’s helpful to acknowledge that a particular homework problem is hard. They’ll feel heard and will be more likely to get back on track. If a child is avoiding homework, Hyken says, it’s important to find out why rather than dole out a punishment. It could be that the child is simply tired or doesn’t understand the task, or it could indicate a deeper issue such as a mood disorder or learning disorder.
Create structure. For starters, make sure your child has a break between school and homework, ideally with 20 minutes of aerobic exercise of some kind. Then establish a structure for getting homework done. For young kids, it can be helpful if parents join in with their own “work,” such as balancing the checkbook.
Allow the setting that works best. Sitting at the dining room table doesn’t work for many kids. In fact, sitting can dull attention span. Some kids will want to stand at the counter or sit on a ball chair to engage core muscles and heighten attention, while others might want to work with a lap desk on the living room couch. (See “Uncommon Homework Advice” for more tips on matching your child with her ideal homework environment.)
Limit screen time. Dolin recommends restricting access to screens until a certain time in the evening so kids don’t rush through homework to get to their video games or tablets. Smartphones can be tricky; many middle school kids use them to access homework online or communicate with friends about assignments. Try your best to ensure they’re not goofing off.
Nix power struggles. If a frustrated child carries on, acknowledge that the homework is hard—but don’t engage further. Tell him to come get you when he’s ready, and then leave the room. When he’s in this state, “You won’t be able to say anything right, and he’ll pick apart your efforts to help,” Dolin says. Try to stay neutral.
Avoid punishment. Handing down a punishment pits your child against you and can decrease motivation exactly when you want her to invest effort. However, if screens are interfering with homework, it’s fine to suspend or delay privileges, such as limiting screen time to weekends only. Consider framing it as a family rule.
Allow natural consequences. If a child procrastinates, put a time limit on homework and have her take unfinished work to school. Most kids want to get their work done for their teachers and view the time limit as a negative. Generally, this tactic will take about three days to take effect. Other natural consequences can be a low grade or having your child’s teacher talk with your child. If a child doesn’t care about completing homework, another issue such as depression or oppositional behavior may be at work. Reach out for additional help.
Identify types of struggle. Certain aspects of homework may be difficult, but a child can benefit from struggling through it. However, if he feels too far behind and doesn’t see a way forward, he may be in “destructive struggle” mode. Natural consequences will backfire—it’s time to meet with the teacher.
Celebrate successes. To instill positive feelings, make a point to celebrate improvement, effort, and in some instances, good grades for a large project. Even older kids appreciate parents’ recognition. Hyken advises keeping celebrations low-key and family-centric, such as spending time together at a favorite burger joint.
Take the long view. Try to reframe your expectations and recognize that your child may not be motivated in the same way you are. Define success on his terms, such as improvement in a certain subject. Point out his sharp memory for advertising jingles, or compliment him on how analytical he is while playing on the Xbox.
To Reward or Not
Research demonstrates that rewarding children decreases intrinsic motivation. But for a less motivated student, rewards may jump-start success. Tips to keep in mind:
Skip paying for grades. The semester is too long and the steps are too complicated to lead to sustained effort.
Set specific goals. Identify one or two, such as completing homework or attending class daily for achievable outcomes.
Strategize for success. Help develop routines. Scale back on activities; set up an accountability chart; create a system for oft-forgotten school items.
Offer experiences as incentives. Consider what your child values—choosing the dinner menu? Bike-riding with Dad?—and give that rather than money or trinkets.