By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman
Do you ever wonder why some students appear motivated and successful in school while others do not? Is it genetic, learned or both? Most importantly, how can we redirect unmotivated students?
Many parents complain that their children are just not motivated, or are lazy. They are not completing assignments, don’t care about their grades and aren’t interested in school (aside from their friends). They have too many appealing distractions, like their social lives, their online social lives, and their computers, iPhones and TVs.
School may be unappealing for many reasons-it is too hard and overwhelming, it is not interesting, there isn’t enough support or structure, or they don’t see school’s relevance to their future. In addition, every person is motivated differently.
In her book Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Functions – The Attention Fix, Paula Moraine states, “Motivation is formed by our personality, our inherent way of being, and our temperament. One person is motivated by getting engaged in projects, while another person is only motivated if he is engaged with a partner. One might be motivated by the goal or prize, while another really only wants to hear praise for a job well done. These are natural motivators and are part of what makes each student unique.”
Here are some reasons children seem unmotivated, along with strategies to redirect your unique child’s attention towards school and capitalize on his interests.
Reading for Pleasure
Our varied interests and talents help fill the great range of jobs that help society function. Every human being has a variety of interests, and children are especially curious and eager to learn. You can help your child channel his interests through reading for pleasure, especially during summer break. Help him find books he will enjoy. He can ask his friends what they are reading and try different genres. Since schoolwork involves so much reading and writing, reading for pleasure is the leading predictor of success at school and is the best way to improve reading, writing, spelling and grammar.
Does your child hate to read? If you’ve ever read a good book, you know that slipping into another world through a good story can be relaxing and fun. If your child doesn’t want to read, it is probably because he sees it not as fun, but as work. Talk to his teacher and try to find out if he is on grade level or below. If he is below grade level, you will need to get extra support to help him catch up. Meanwhile, help him pick out intriguing books that he can read easily. If they are at his reading level, he will be more motivated to read them.
Is the Schoolwork and/or Homework Too Difficult?
Challenging schoolwork is a major reason for students to lack motivation. (I’m sure you notice your child perfectly motivated to do something he excels at, like a sport or hobby.) You can sit down with him and go over the assignments to find out what is too hard and why. You can also measure how long it takes to do each assignment.
You can work with your child to break down each assignment into manageable chunks, write down the order of tasks and include breaks. A parent, older sibling, teacher or tutor can help with the more difficult parts.
If homework takes too long, you can talk to the teacher about reducing the load. Particularly with math, some children need more time to do the problems than others, and they may learn just as much with fewer problems.
In middle school and high school, a course load with too many honors and AP classes can overwhelm a student. Consider scaling back if appropriate.
Is the Schoolwork Boring?
If your child is not motivated because he is bored, you can talk to the teacher about supplementing his curriculum with more challenging work. Many schools offer enrichment as part of their curriculum. But in life, we will always have to do boring and mundane activities. Discuss the rewards-good grades-and the feeling of accomplishment, and be sure to offer praise for hard work. A parent can also enrich the schoolwork by using historical anecdotes or interesting real-world applications of science, for example.
Is the Schoolwork Relevant?
Students are more motivated when they understand real-life applications of what they are learning. For example, our political and military leaders need to know history in order to know what has been successful and what has failed in the past. Understanding math teaches your brain to make logical connections. Tutor Zachary Snell said that a student of his asked, “Am I ever going to use trigonometry in life?” Snell answered “Maybe not, but you’ll use the learning process that lets you obtain those trig skills forever, and figuring out how you learn and what to do to refine that process for a variety of challenges is what needs to happen in school.”
Bob Martray, another tutor, advises, “Make a special effort to relate the topics and concepts being covered to real-world problems, especially in the students’ fields of interest. The better you can relate topics to their passions, the more motivated they will become. Provide a simple example of how what they are learning can benefit them.”
Learning vs. Getting Good Grades
Getting good grades is a laudable goal, but lifelong learning will ultimately be more valuable. You can give your children examples of topics you learned in school that have served you well in your career or daily life. Martray advises parents to “develop a strong rapport with each child and ensure they know that you are there for them to help them learn, which will improve all aspects of their life. You are not there just to help them pass the course/test or to critique and correct them.”
Some Students Need More Structure
Is homework time a set time during the day? If your student has too much time on his hands, he may procrastinate, especially if a parent isn’t home to help as needed.
Work with your child to schedule homework for one or two blocks of time each day, with short breaks between subjects. Some of that time should be when a parent is available and some time should be scheduled to review class lessons and thus prevent last-minute cramming before tests.
Put all homework away in a folder when completed and put the folder in the backpack to make sure it is handed in.
Reward your child for doing his best. Rewards can be praise, special time together or other treats.
Students Need Good Study Skills to Succeed
Doing poorly on tests is frustrating. A parent, teacher or tutor can help a student create good study strategies, like making a study guide, using mnemonics to memorize facts and reviewing material on a regular basis. Remember, success will motivate.
Parent expectations have a big impact on students’ motivation in school. Parents who expect school to be a priority will limit other activities, such as TV and computer games, and encourage homework and reading. In addition, parents can help and support children as needed. However, refrain from being a helicopter parent. You do want your child to manage homework, chores and free time as independently as he can. Finding the happy medium is challenging, but worthwhile.
Finally, having the right mindset is important. Carol Dweck wrote a book called Mindset―The New Psychology of Success. She describes two typical mindsets: fixed mindset, meaning your intelligence, talents and character are set; and growth mindset, which is “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” People with growth mindsets learn from failures and believe they can increase their intelligence and improve on their talents. According to Dweck, “Scientists are learning that people have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than they ever thought.” This means that regardless of how intelligent and talented you start out, you can make great improvements through perseverance and hard work. Surprisingly, the concept of increasing your intelligence is touted by Alfred Binet, who developed the first intelligence test. In his book, Modern Ideas About Children, he says, “With practice, training and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.”
We need to show our children that their potential is sky-high. They only need to do their best and know how to get help. We parents can choose a growth mindset in our own lives and provide an example for our children.