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My Kids Aren't Motivated to Learn!

by Beverley Paine, 1998

Like most parents motivating the kids is a subject dear to my heart.

I've spoken to dozens (if not hundreds!) of parents concerned about motivating their children to learn. Lack of motivation is a HUGE issue for homeschooling parents.

Motivation. Let’s define what we are talking about. What do we mean when we talk about motivation? What do we mean by learners?

Motivation equals the drive to get something done, anything, anytime. It is a driving force. There are different kinds of motivating forces. I’ve found that the ones that derive from my own sense of self are the most powerful. Of these, the ones related to pleasure work the best, although I’ve been known to get things done for a variety of reasons – impending deadlines, to help others, or maybe because something is just there, in my face and I want to move on.

Emotion is a huge part of motivation. Emotional responses to life release endorphins which surge through our brain fixing details into memory… we remember emotional times much clearer than any other. Emotion also helps us find meaning in our daily activities. It’s difficult to divorce emotional experience from learning, but it seems the more passionate we feel the greater the impact on our memory and learning. Which brings us back to motivation.

What motivates us? I like to think about myself as a learner, before I get too focussed on my children. What do I mean by learner? I see myself as learning, something, anything, every moment of the day. A lot of my learning is subsconscious. I just busily take in all the details, file it away in my busy brain, let the brain sort it all out in good time, and then allow the ‘insights’ to filter slowly into consciousness. This happens whether I know about it or not. It is naturally learning, and most of my learning happens this way. The busier I am, the more productive I am, the more I learn, naturally.
I also engage in focussed learning. Usually because I want to do something, or need to do something, or simply want to know something. I may begin with a question and then find answers by finding suitable sources of information or help. Once again this is a very natural part of my life.

Occasionally though I am faced with a task where I need to be a very focussed and active learner, like organising this Expo. Doing something that is new, or different, or challenging.

This is where motivation comes in. If I don’t want to do it, I find the whole thing an up hill battle. My mood goes down hill, I get cranky, irritable, depressed, unhappy. I don’t perform well, nowhere near up to my usual standard. I usually start blaming the tools, the materials, other people, lack of time, resources… anything and everyone for my poor outcomes.
But the thing at fault is my attitude. I have a bad attitude to learning this new, challenging, different thing. I am approaching my need or want to learn it from a very unhelpful direction.

Changing attitude is very hard. Sometimes it is better to leave the task alone and work on changing attitude first. Other times, when the job just has to be done, it is better to knuckle under, making a note that attitudes need to worked on next. At times like this it is good idea to find a strong motivator to help push the job along. I’ve used bribes, cajoled myself, got other people to enthuse me, promised myself something nice, even pretended I really want to get the work done, or done a little realistic goal setting…

Nothing beats setting goals for motivation. They really help. Breaking a task down into easily managed chunks, keeping the big picture in the back of the mind, but learning to focus on the more immediate aspects of what needs to be done now, is essential. Give me too much information and I get overwhelmed. Give me too much work and I get overwhelmed. Give me too much learning to do and I get overwhelmed.

When I get overwhelmed I get unhappy. Unhappy means my attitude to learning goes down hill. I don’t want to play the learning game anymore. Our children are no different. It is really easy to be turned off, and once turned off, we always remember that time with unhappy emotion. This makes it real hard to turn back on.

When I think of goals, in homeschooling, I think of what it is we want to achieve as parents and as educators of our children. We all have long term goals for our children, things like encouraging self confidence, developing ability to communicate effectively, to show respect for others, demonstrate tolerance, etc. I’m really talking about values now, those values we want to instill in our children, those values we’ve developed over a lifetime.

Because we’re individuals we all have different values, yours and mine are different. This makes answering questions about how to motivate children incredibly difficult. If for example you are a parent that values unquestioning obedience your idea of motivation would be considerably different from a parent who encourages critical engagement and a questioning attitude in a child.

Both ways of child rearing have their merits - neither is superior or more right than the other. In each family each method is appropriate and lack of motivation would need to be treated differently in each. No one answer is correct for every case or even applicable, and you must be wary of advice that knows nothing about how your family operates.

Having said that, there are a few simple things that we can do to help us out when we are faced with apparent lack of motivation in our children, especially related to home learning.

The first is to clearly examine our goals, our objectives. Are these realistic? Lack of motivation can be caused by pressuring children into learning something they are not ready to learn yet.

The nature of learning is such that we need to build on concepts previously understood, like a brick wall goes onto a solid foundation, without the foundation the wall will not last, or crumbles as it is constructed. We need to know that our children fully understand foundational concepts. They need to already have the skills to complete the task before them. Most of us don’t fully appreciate that at birth the brain is not yet fully developed. Research is now revealing that even during the teen years the brain is still developing, growing, changing – physically. There are some things it is physically impossible for children to do, especially in the formative years, simply because the links are not yet forged in the brain!

Don’t ask children to do things they don’t have a hope of being able to do – this will only cause undue stress and unhappiness – thus bad attitude to learning, which may spread like a virus into other activities if it happens too often. How do you know they are not capable of doing it? What if they are just being lazy? A lazy child is nowhere near as distressed as a child who can’t do something because they are not ready…

This distress can show up as resistance to learning - a child may appear sleepy, unwell, teary or frustrated. He or she may become angry, or work slowly, or doodle. Or become talkative, clearly avoiding the task at hand. A child may become ill.

If we coerce a child into learning when clearly they are not ready to do so several things may happen. These do happen frequently in classrooms, and they are things we'd rather avoid in the home school. Things like the child pretending to know the lesson, or resorting to 'cheating' by copying the work, or by being silly and pretending it doesn't matter, or by feeling like a failure, or learning not to trust her inner voice and believing that she is studid, and can never learn anything.

It is really important to determine if this lack of understanding is the cause of the lack of motivation in order not to undermine your child's self esteem or her confidence in her ability to learn.

You can do this by simply asking some questions about how she feels about the work, what does she understand, etc. Use positive language, and phrase questions and statements to solicit more than one word responses. Make it clear you want to find out the best way of teaching the lesson you can, and that if another approach is needed, then okay, but you need help and cooperation, and committment.

Asking for commitment is one sure way to get motivation, but only if the child is involved in the planning and organising of whatever task is required. I often find that if Thomas is involved in cooking that new recipe with that vegetable he doesn't like, then he is more willing to eat it!
Discovering something about your child's learning styles is a useful place to start when working toward resolving lack of motivation in children. Children who are energetic and love to run, rather than walk, will have a lot of problem sitting still reading and writing.

Some children may have specific difficulties, such as trouble handwriting, and may need specific skill building or exercises before writing assignments can be tackled. Sometimes a lack of motivation may just come down to a late night the night before, or a series of late nights, over stimulation or just plain hunger. Often a child can't recognise these problems and need a sympathetic and aware parent to detect them.
Is the task we are setting before the child developmentally appropriate?
A lot of what we ask children to know and be able to do, and hence a lot of our teaching time, we ask them to do too early. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, homeschooling authors for two decades, advocate the better late than early approach, and although I was reluctant to accept the advice they offered my own personal experience has borne out that children can perform in a superior way as young adults many of the tasks that are laborious and difficult and result in learning resistance when younger.
Things like tying shoe laces, tidying rooms, reading, writing, maths concepts, working with tools, etc. There are many things children will learn without being taught in their own time. If we allow children, if we trust them, to do this, then it lessens our burden of needing to teach them, and we are less likely to pressure them into learning.

Another cause of lack of motivation could be the child is going through a period of consolidation - we all need time to reflect on our recent spate of learning. Have you noticed how people get energised about something new, and talk and talk about it for a couple of weeks, then the interest wanes. We move into a reflective stage, a stage where skills are finally mastered and then left for a while, perhaps unused.

So what about the lazy child I mentioned before. I’ve rarely seen this condition in my own children, but I think it relates to boredom. When a child is bored motivation drops away, not just from one area, but all areas of life. This can lead to depression and mental illness, especially worrisome during the adolescent years. Best to aviod altogether by getting on top of boredom in the early years.

Some children become bored by the task or content of the learning task or activity because they may have already mastered it and find it less than challenging. Again, a few simple honest questions can determine if this is the case. My children acted bored but were really just waiting for the resources they wanted to get into things they wanted to do – waiting for enough money in their case. We were able to fix this, by talking about it, and by coming up with money making solutions.

Looking at lack of motivation can be turned around, examining instead what it takes to motivate a child. This turns a negative concept into a positive. You can do this in several ways. Some of these ways are less productive overall, and can backfire if overused, so be wary of using them on a regular basis!

You could build entertainment into the learning task. This is a very popular method, but children soon see through it and tire of it quickly. Educational toys and games, television programs, gimicky books, all aimed at entertaining as well as educating, have short lives in most homes. They sit on shelves for years after the first flush of interest has worn off.
You could pretend to be keenly interested yourself. I have done this on occasion only to be surprised by a growing interest developing in myself in a subject I have picked up to encourage my children to learn!
You could engage in the activity, and invite them to join you. This works well for art, writing poetry, science explorations, etc. The children are often curious, and like to work with me, although sometimes I am careful not to produce execptional work they would use to compare their own against and feel inadequate.

You could offer incentives - such as bribes, rewards, certificates, stickers, playing time, etc. At times I have used charts to keep a record of lessons done, and rewarded at the end of the week. I liked the charting idea as it introduced a maths concept into the home!

My favourite method of motivating my children is to be excited about learning myself, and model motivation. I am forever asking questions - my favourite is 'why is it so?' and leave the answer to the universe - often my children jump to the encyclopedia or bookshelf to find out.

When faced with having to work I don't want to do I question the necessity of doing it - if I still need to do it, then I do it quickly and efficiently in order to free my time up to do other things I prefer to do. This modelling is essential in developing a good work ethic. If other people can help me so much the better - working socially is better than working alone in many things. So I help my children to do their work and they help me. This alleviates many lack of motivation problems, in many areas.

I have found that working alongside of or with the children, even when they do academic bookwork, to be a major incentive to keeping them on task. Although sometimes I will be doing something nearby, if I am sitting at the table with them they feel that I am valuing the task I have given them, even if they cannot see the immediate merit in it. They know I am interested in the process and the outcome and that it matters.

I have read that motivation is the ability to distinguish and utilise aspects of the emotional being in order to create - that motivation and creativity are tied together, and that in order to create consistently and constructively one must be free, self directed and able to envisage self growth and change. This is the endpoint in my task of child rearing, and I try to empahsise self knowledge in my children, to get them to understand the difference between needs and wants.

More often than not when we face a lack of motivation in children when it is hard for them to see the relevence of what they have to do, to please you or someone else, in their immediate life. I take great pains to try and explain my motivations for asking them to comply with my requests - and sometimes if I can't do this adequately I rethink my goals, changing them to something I can explain. I seek their cooperation, and by respecting them as people and talking them, negotiating with them, often get it without needing to resort to standover parenting tactics, although I don't berate myself if occasionally I do make demands they don't like.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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