Motivating kids to do schoolwork was hard enough in pre-pandemic times.
No matter how skilled the teacher, and how clever the lesson plans, most kids would find at least some academic work utter drudgery.
Many families are experiencing this drudgery compounded by distance learning compounded by two-plus weeks of sweet, winter break freedom during which nobody asked anyone to answer a math problem on Zoom.
Kids, we need you to motivate. For your own sake, so you can resume your schoolwork without too much struggle or pain. And for your parents’ sake, so we can work, cook, clean, grocery shop and whatever else we need to do during our precious daytime hours instead of making sure you’re paying attention to Zoom school.
If only it were as easy as bribing them with the Halloween candy leftovers. Motivation is a complex mechanism, one that depends on a mix of biological and social factors. Punishments and rewards can help nudge it in the right direction. To really unlock a child’s drive, however, parents need to think beyond simply getting things done.
How motivation works
The brain systems behind motivation are shaped over time, and begin in the early years. Young children need a supportive caregiver to encourage them to take chances and explore, and cheer them on when they find an activity rewarding. Over time, the pleasure a child experiences from overcoming a challenge or indulging a curiosity will reinforce his or her desire to do it over and over again.
A 2018 paper from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explains the brain mechanisms behind this process. It advises parents to start this early, and remember to challenge kids – not too little, and not too much.
“From infancy onward, effort is required to sustain motivation, but success must be possible. They lose motivation when a task is too easy, but also when it is so difficult as to be insurmountable,” the authors wrote.
To get kids more motivated, they recommend giving kids as much agency as possible, keep the rewards to a minimum while fostering intrinsic motivation, and remember that conditions – including resources, time and support – matter. “It is incorrect to say that if anyone wants something badly enough, he or she will find a way to do it.”
Doing more by doing less
This post-holiday period during a pandemic hasn’t created the ideal conditions for parents to help kids get motivated. Who has the time? The resources? The ability to support? But even frazzled, exhausted parents, which is to say nearly all parents, can do it.
Like so much else in life, when it comes to motivating your kids less really can be more.
Wendy Ostroff, associate professor of cognitive and developmental science at Sonoma State University in California, found that her sixth grade son was having a hard time with distance learning this fall.
“He was having a lot of anxiety, and not getting his work in,” said Ostroff, who is also the author of “Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms: How to Promote and Sustain Deep Learning.” “It was too many moving parts for him, and it was derailing our whole family.”
Reluctant to be “that mom,” the one “asking for special treatment,” at first she held off on requesting a lighter load from his teachers. But after two months, enough was enough, and she requested they cut back on the art and music classes that were hard for her son.
“He was a different kid,” she said.
Ostroff considers this an important lesson, and one that she hopes other parents receive. Sometimes with kids, the trick to motivation is as simple as cutting back on your child’s workload. If your kid feels overwhelmed, it’s hard for them to see the potential in himself, or his work.
Make sure they have time to play
Children are not designed to learn virtually, Ostroff said, no matter how good their teacher is and how long they can sit still. Instead, kids learn best through play, social i