Motivating Children To Learn

By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman, MA

It is late August. Having had enough of summer leisure, the kids are excitedly picking out trapper keepers and other shiny new school supplies. On the first day of school, all subjects in the trapper are organized according to the teacher’s specifications; the teacher is nice and has exciting plans for the school year.

It is late September. The notebook is becoming frazzled and school is getting “boring.” The novelty has worn off.

How can we hold onto the excitement from the beginning of the school year and keep it alive throughout the whole year?

Don’t wait until late September. Capitalize on your child’s early excitement and keep up the momentum. When your child is enthusiastic, listen to what it’s all about, and show your own enthusiasm. Example: “You’re going to be working with meal worms in Science? That’s fantastic! Will you be doing experiments? What kind?”

Then find ways to make sure your child can use what he is learning. Keep track of what he is studying so that you can find the appropriate applications. The following list includes some examples in the various subject areas, but the potential is unlimited.

Math – Purchase small items in the store and make change. At the supermarket, estimate the total cost of the groceries. Go on a trip and figure out your car’s miles per gallon on and off the highway. Use a map to reach your destination and use the map scale to estimate the number of miles. Note how fractions, percents and graphs are incorporated in newspaper articles. Figure out your chances of winning the lottery.

Social Studies – Make history come alive. Some teachers do this, but some do not. If a child does not find any relevance in the reading material, she will tune it out. She may be able to memorize some material for a test, and may forget it again the next day. Discuss her reading topic, and together try to imagine what life must have been like for John Smith or Thomas Jefferson. Apply current events (TV, newspaper, or magazine) whenever possible.

Reading – The idea is to convey the message that reading is useful, interesting and enjoyable, not work. You may help your son find age appropriate reading materials, but ultimately the reading choice should be his. Being an avid reader myself, my idea of an appropriate book is one that you cannot put down. One of my most cherished pleasures is finding such a book and becoming so engrossed in the lives of the characters that I am temporarily almost in their lives. Because I can totally escape from my own worries with such a book, reading is my most relaxing activity. People who can become so engrossed in books become avid readers.

Like with tennis, tetris, and the piano, practice is the key to achieving excellence. Do not discourage your child from reading what you might consider to be not the best quality. The series books, which include Sweet Valley Twins, Goosebumps, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and The Babysitters Club, are extremely popular and excellent for promoting the love of reading. There is always another book to read when one is finished. After becoming a fluent reader, your child will want to read other books as well, and will eventually become an excellent reader. An excellent reader will develop the vocabulary and reading skills to read more challenging material. On the other hand, an inexperienced reader cannot read more challenging material without it feeling like work.

Of course, other reading material is as important as novels. Have a reader-friendly house filled with magazines, newspapers and books. Have your child pick out magazines for kids — there are many, from Sports Illustrated for Kids to Mad and Cracked. Especially keep reading material in the kitchen, where most growing children spend a lot of their time. Again set an example by reading, yourself. If you are not a reader, try to become more of one by making a special effort to find high interest material, whether it is romance novels, People Magazine, or Readers Digest. It doesn’t matter, as long as you are reading. Children see their parents as role models.

Writing – An excellent reader will also become a good writer by becoming familiar with sentence and paragraph structure, and by building good vocabulary and spelling skills.

Encourage your child to keep a journal and/or write stories, poems, or letters to friends or relatives. Set a good example by doing the same. A journal and other writing should include feelings and thoughts as well as factual information. Do not read your child’s journal unless invited to do so.While you are finding uses for skills learned in school, remember that homework should be the first priority. Do not forget to keep up with what is going on in school. You do not need to know every detail, but if your child has a history of not doing homework assignments, it is especially important to be in touch with the teacher(s) early in the year. Once your child misses a large amount of assignments, he may feel too overwhelmed to tackle them.

Be alert for warning signs and intervene appropriately. Does the homework load seem too small? If so, check with the teacher(s) to make sure all assignments are being completed. You do not need to wait for an interim report. Does your child avoid talking about school? If there clearly is a problem with the schoolwork and/or homework, try to find out why. Are social or family difficulties contributing to poor school work? These problems do not go away on their own. You can help by talking about them with your child or by helping to find someone else for your child to talk to, such as a relative, friend or therapist. Is the work too difficult? Maybe it is, or maybe your child does not have the appropriate study skills to tackle difficult assignments or difficult reading material. A tutor can help your child learn study skills and, as a bonus, build self confidence. It is sometimes difficult for parents to tutor their own children because family emotions get in the way. Most importantly, make sure your child understands that you are there to help, not criticize or berate.

Finally, when your child does well in school, offer praise and encouragement. Find every opportunity to do so. Even adults like to be praised by their bosses for a job well done, and by their spouses after cooking a delicious meal.

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