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 interactions and collaboration, all difficult to achieve on a screen.
“We have to put the joy back in learning because a lot of the joy is gone,” she said, explaining that surprise and silliness are what activate kids’ brains.
In order to inject more of this in their lives, Ostroff recommends carving out time in the day when kids can learn in a more playful manner, whether it’s during school or not. Listen to kids, help them follow their own curiosities, and worry less whether they are putting their all into every online assignment.
Sometimes this learning might be easy to identify – maybe they’ve taken up astronomy or skateboarding – and sometimes it will be more subtle. Learning how to fight through boredom and stay resilient in tough times are important skills that many kids are refining right now, Ostroff said.
Also, kids who feel they have some control and time to play are likely to be happier, and happier kids are more likely to grin and bear those parts of the day about which they are less than enthusiastic.
“We need more dialogue with kids, and a loosening from teachers and parents, but unfortunately all the news is about tightening in on them, and being afraid,” she said.
Help kids think big
For those moments when there is an essay that your daughter really doesn’t want to write or a math problem that your son just doesn’t want to figure out, it can be helpful to redirect their attention to how learning today will impact their future.
It’s not about how successful they will be, since that may not sound inspiring, said David Yeager, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Try motivating them in the context of how they will be better able to help others.
“Reframe any frustration or difficulty a student is having as part of their contribution to the world,” he said. “Tell them the stronger their brain is, the more they will be able to contribute to something bigger than themselves.”
This taps into our instinct to help others, and the wash of feel-good hormones we tend to get from acts of empathy and altruism, Yeager said.
The human brain is wired to get satisfaction from these acts before we see their results. That makes this a more useful motivation trick than focusing on getting a good grade or making lots of money when they grow up. With those, the good feeling tends to come much later, if at all.
“When you donate to the homeless you immediately feel like a good person, even though they aren’t getting money for days or weeks,” Yeager explained.
For teens, it can be particularly useful to help them see how the things they learn in school can help them change the world when they grow up. Teenagers make better life choices when they see these choices as an act of defiance, a 2016 study found.
Teens can also be motivated by their hunger for meaning.
“The new neuroscience of adolescence is actually showing that teen brains are ready to learn if they see how it gives their life significance,” he said.
For younger kids, Yeager suggests parents encourage kids to try hard for the sake of their teacher. This tends to be someone they care for, and doing right by their teacher will help provide that emotional immediacy that is a key component for motivation.
Reward the process, not the action
Rewards and punishments can be used for all ages, he said, but not to reward results or productivity. We should reward the routines and habits that make productivity possible.
“Don’t use a reward for completing a Zoom call with perfect attention, use the reward for something smaller like being seated at 8:15 with your laptop open,” he said. “You are rewarding the habit, or the step that will make it easy, almost automatic, for them to be in class.”
“Get them to do smaller steps and they will be more likely to do bigger steps on their own.”
Overall, taking small steps is always good advice when trying to change a behavior or attitude.
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Parents might want to try these motivational tricks on ourselves when trying to get motivated to motivate our children.
Whether you’re reimaging your children’s schedules, making more space for them to play, or having conversations about how today’s work impacts their ability to contribute in the future, slow down and see what works to motivate your kid in these difficult times.
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.