Many parents want their children to be more motivated – especially at school and when doing homework. It is helpful if we first consider which conditions must be met for children (and adults) to be motivated. These conditions can be described by three questions:
1. Do I have to do anything at all (today)??
2. Do I feel able/capable of doing this??
3. Is this activity or its result important to me?
The difficulty here is that each question must be answered with "yes" answered so that we are willing to do something:
3 x yes = motivation
We thus have three different reasons why a child might be unmotivated:
1. He or she is underchallenged or doesn’t see why he or she should do something now (when the homework isn’t due for three days).
2. They are actually overtaxed or underestimate their abilities.
3. The child does not see any meaning in this activity / the taught material.
Depending on the situation, a child may also need different kinds of help:
1. An underchallenged child should be challenged.
2. Overachieving and helpless children need a sense of accomplishment, parents who can pay attention to and rejoice in small advances, and a sense that their own efforts are leading to improvement.
3. Children who don’t care about school and learning need to be able to see connections between school material and their lives more clearly. They also need recognition for their efforts, encouragement and clear expectations.
In the next motivation tips, we will present you with one way each to strengthen your child’s motivation.
Motivation to learn Tip 2: Recognition
We all find work easier when we receive recognition for it. Recognition can be expressed through praise, although not every kind of praise is equally beneficial.
University of Stanford professor Carole Dweck wanted to know in more detail what kind of praise has what effect. She divided 400 children into three groups and had them solve different tasks. She told the children of all groups after solving the tasks that they had done well and had solved 80% of the tasks correctly.
In addition, she told the children of group 1 that they must be very intelligent if they had solved so many tasks.
The children in group 2 were told that they must have worked hard to do so well.
The children in group 3 received no further praise.
After that, the professor had the following suggestion for the children: "You can now either solve a difficult task or an easy one. The difficult one does not say that you can solve it – but you can certainly learn something from it. You can certainly solve the simple task – but you won’t learn anything from it. Which task should I give you?"
How many children chose the more difficult task?? The results may seem surprising at first glance:
Group 1 (praise for intelligence) chose the difficult task 35% of the time
Group 2 (praise for effort) chose the difficult task 90% of the time
Group 3 (no praise) chose the difficult task 55% of the time.
How can this be explained? Dweck and other researchers assume that children who are often praised for their intelligence do not think exercise is meaningful. The children in group 1 have already proven that they are intelligent – why should they make any more effort and do the difficult task??
A second explanation could be the reverse. Children might think: "If she thinks I’m intelligent because I did a good job, what does she think of me if I can’t do a difficult task?? Am I then stupid?" They prefer to avoid challenges for fear of losing status.
The children in Group 2, on the other hand, learned that the experimenter appreciates them when they make an effort. So it seems obvious to at least try the difficult task.
If we want our children to try hard, we should praise them for things they can actively influence themselves. We might find it great that they:
- Have prepared early enough
- Participate in class
- have made an effort
- have tried again
- started on their own
- Have tried the new learning technique
Motivation Tip 3: Pay attention to what you give your child credit for
The last tip already dealt with the topic of recognition. We have pointed out that children are more likely to try hard when they are praised for things they can influence themselves (z.B. try hard / start learning early enough / try a new learning strategy) and it can actually negatively affect motivation if you praise children for their talent or intelligence.
Let’s take a closer look at what we can look for in this topic.
Many parents often praise, but in a very general way, referring to the result. You say something like: "Great", "Good", "You did a good job".
Often it turns out that after such praise the children try to do it "well" to do. Sometimes with the side effect of being less confident to be creative, to try things out and to go your own way.
If we notice such tendencies in our child, we can signal to him through our interest and words that we appreciate his independence, perseverance or creativity.
If a child always wants to know if he or she has done everything right and is therefore hardly willing to try something on his or her own, we could say:
"Wow – you’ve really come a long way today on your own."
"I feel like you’ve become a lot more independent lately – especially with homework. I wanted to tell you that I am very happy about that"
"Great that you solved these two tasks by yourself – what do you think, can you still manage them on your own?"
For example, if a child always gives up right away, he or she might receive recognition for being a little more persistent:
– "Hey great that you tried again!"
– "I have the feeling that you are more persistent with tasks than before!"
– "I know – sometimes you feel as if you can’t do it all – it’s not easy to keep going anyway. Today you stuck with it and I think it was really worth it."
If you want, you can consider:
- What trait (persistence, independence) would help your child move forward
2. When your child already behaves this way (in rudiments)
3. How you might show appreciation to your child when they take small steps in the right direction
In the following video, you will learn in a little more detail how you can improve your child’s ability to concentrate by providing appropriate feedback:
Perhaps you – like many parents in our seminars – are surprised at how quickly your child responds to this.
Motivation to learn Tip 4: Show interest
Recognition can also be expressed through interest.
If your child has made a drawing, you can tell him that you like the drawing. But maybe it means more to your child if you sit down with him and ask him:
– Wow – what have you drawn there??
– Pirates! What do you like about pirates?
– Hey here someone has a wooden leg. Did you also draw one with an eye patch??
– This one is spitting at someone else with a saber – cruel. Who are they attacking? Why?
The great thing about such questions is that you show interest in the activity and not in the result. If children are regularly praised for "beautiful drawings", you can often watch how the drawings gradually become "more beautiful" – and more well-behaved, uncreative and boring. Until in the end – as someone once pointedly put it – the drawing teacher in the tenth grade has 25 beautiful drawings hanging on the wall that look so much alike that the students themselves no longer know which one was theirs.
By asking questions, you encourage your child not only to continue drawing, but also to pursue his or her own interests and remain creative.
Drawing: A wild boar gets angry and shoots back from Fabian’s creative days
Motivation to learn Tip 5: The right place
The right place can increase motivation considerably. If you play sports, you may have had the following experience: you’re exhausted and don’t feel like exercising at all – but as soon as you’re in the dance studio, gym, dojo, tennis hall or on your usual running track and have put on your workout clothes, the energy comes almost by itself. Such effects come about through conditioning.
Now there are many learning guides that therefore recommend that a child should always learn in the same place. A good tip as long as a child has had good learning experiences in this place so far.
Bad advice if this place is associated with conflict, hassle and stress for the child. In this case, negative conditioning has taken place: The place alone already triggers frustration and paralysis: As soon as your child sits at his desk, his face almost falls asleep.
In this case it makes sense to change the place and to learn once in the kitchen, another time in the living room. Pay attention to where your child can concentrate best and make that the new place to learn.
Sometimes surprises reveal themselves. For example, we often work in cafes and can concentrate very well there. There is something going on in the cafe, but it is none of our business – and we feel optimally activated. Our books were almost always written in cafes. Perhaps your child also feels most comfortable and productive in a place you would never, ever have chosen as a place to learn?
Learning motivation Tip 6: The right time
We all have a so-called biorhythm: at certain times we are more efficient than at others. For example, many people have a morning high, an afternoon low, and then another high later in the afternoon. Other people are particularly efficient in the evening.
General recommendations like:
– Children should come home, take a half-hour break and then do their homework
are therefore only ever useful with certain (in the best case, most) children. However, it may be that your child "ticks" quite differently. One mother said to us:
"We had a fight every day about the homework. I wanted my son to come home and do it right away. Since I allowed him to do homework right after dinner, we don’t have any arguments anymore. He almost seems to enjoy doing them then. I used to think: If he is already too tired in the afternoon – how can he be fit enough in the evening??"
This boy seems to be a distinct night owl. He probably struggles to get going in the morning, is tired during the first few hours of school, and doesn’t fall asleep well in the evening. There is little that can be done about this. However, accommodating is possible at least when it comes to homework.
If you are now thinking, "My child always wants to do homework later, too – but I don’t think that will do any good" – then you might be interested in our next post. It will show you a risk-free way to find the right time to exercise.
Learning motivation Tip 7: The homework contract
In the last tip we wrote that children have performance peaks at different times of the day – and it may be that a child can concentrate much better and is much more motivated in the evening than in the afternoon. However, many parents are uncomfortable with letting their children experiment with different times or even letting the child decide for himself when to do homework. They are afraid that the child will take advantage of this freedom.
You can counteract this by solemnly drawing up a contract. This one might go like this:
With the contract, you indirectly convey to your child that he or she will have more freedom if he or she is willing to take on more responsibility.
If, on the other hand, it becomes apparent that your child is still overwhelmed with this freedom, the responsibility goes back to you as a parent until the end of the month. In this case, you and your child may feel like discussing how your child can better motivate himself and remind himself of the homework – and who knows, you may try it again next month – with a better result?
Motivation to learn Tip 8: Motivating those who are reluctant to read
Over the years, we have counseled many parents whose children do not like to read, often due to a dyslexia.
Parents were often instructed by the school to read regularly with the child for 10 to 15 minutes to catch up. Not an easy thing to do! Children often refuse, are stubborn and would rather play Lego or go outside.
The project becomes easier almost immediately if you choose the right time. Interrupting your child during Lego play and asking him to read is tantamount to punishment.
However, many children do not like to go to sleep at night. We have often used this circumstance to ask parents when their child needs to go to bed. For example, if bedtime was at 9 p.m., we suggested the following to parents: "At 9 p.m., say to your child: Would you rather go to sleep right away or read with me for another 15 minutes??" Very many children in this case were quite ready for a reading exercise. If the child is asked to choose between "reading and sleeping," he or she is more likely to want to read than if asked to choose between "reading and Legos".
Of course, the child should still get enough sleep – but usually 15 minutes doesn’t matter. You can also use this method when your child gets a little older: Build in a time when the child needs to be in bed but is still allowed to read, rather than just letting the child stay up late.
Learning motivation Tip 9: It’s easier together
Many children are simply reluctant to read alone. If they are expected to do their homework in the child’s room at the desk, they quickly feel isolated. Quite a few children respond by constantly coming out of the room to ask their parents questions. Some become more and more dependent – not because they can’t do it on their own, but because they don’t want to be alone.
The simple solution to this problem: let your child work beside you while you do something else. Tell your child to focus and write down questions to ask at the end. If your child interrupts you, you can always tell them that they are welcome to work alongside you as long as they write down the questions and don’t interrupt you for a pre-determined amount of time.
My father was a teacher and usually took a walk to the schoolhouse after dinner to correct exams or prepare lessons in his classroom. If I had to prepare for an exam when I was young, I was happy to go along with it. I sat down at a student’s desk and prepared the exam while my father worked at the teacher’s desk. We often had good conversations on the way there and back, and studying in the evening felt significantly less stressful when you weren’t the only one "suffering".
How is it at home? What experiences have you had with working together? And with what activities is it best to combine doing homework?
Learning Motivation Tip 10: Attribute progress to practice
We are motivated when we feel we can make a difference through our own behavior. As a parent, you can show your child that his or her efforts are leading to progress by repeatedly pointing out to him or her. With simple statements you give your child the feeling: what I do brings something!
For example, you might say to your child:
-I feel like you read much more fluently since we read together for 15 minutes each evening. What do you think?
-I find that you can memorize the texts much faster with this new text learning strategy…
-Great that you have won. The hard training seems to have paid off!
A father in one of our seminars made a treasure chest with his son. Everything his son was proud of went into this box: swimming badges, good essays, a book he himself had read from cover to cover. From time to time they took a look at the old treasures. The son was regularly amazed at how much he had learned in a short time. Children make huge progress in the first years of school: When we show them texts from the previous year or old arithmetic tests, they see all they have learned.
The more you actively point out to a child the progress they’ve made for themselves through their efforts, the more confident they’ll be that they can overcome future challenges as well.
In soccer you can get into the next higher league, in karate or judo you get a "higher" belt with each exam, and the heroes in video games gain experience points and move up a level over time. One child who had to learn the multiplication tables drew a comparison from himself to his computer game heroes: "It’s like my game: the more I do something, the more experience I gain until I move up a level!" The master level it has defined together with his father so that it can solve 100 calculations in five minutes.
In computer games, for example, progress is represented by beautifully designed skill trees. You can see and feel how the hero is developing. How does your child notice how he is developing and learning??
Fabian Grolimund and Stefanie Rietzler are psychologists and jointly run the Academy for Learning Coaching in Zurich.
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