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How to keep your child motivated to learn

Motivating children to do homework
Do you wish your child would get on with their work without you nagging? Read our expert tips on building self-motivation.

Most children, when they first start school, are like sponges, eager to please and soaking up knowledge. But as they get older, their motivation often wanes and schoolwork becomes a chore.

This can be a worry for us parents, who want our children to achieve their full potential.

A big predictor of whether a child will do well in school is their ability to self-motivate,’ explains Professor Deborah Eyre, co-author of Great Minds and How to Grow Them (Routledge, £14.99). ‘It’s fine for parents to encourage and support, but if a child is to succeed, they have to want to do things for themselves.’

What affects children’s motivation?

There are many reasons why children’s motivation to learn can drop off as they progress through primary school and beyond.

‘This sometimes happens when a child has always found something easy, but then it starts to get tricky,’ Deborah says: a common situation when children get older, and the difficulty of their schoolwork increases.

Increasing amounts of homework can also play a part. Children can start to resent the burden of homework, and do the bare minimum required. This is especially true if homework starts to crowd out the activities that your child enjoys.

A lack of self-belief can affect children’s motivation, too. ‘Sometimes, when our children are struggling with something, we unintentionally compound the problem,’ Deborah explains. For instance, if your child is having a hard time learning their times tables, we might say, ‘Never mind; I was never any good at maths, either.’

‘Our intention is to reassure our children, but actually, it can make them feel there’s no point trying,’ says Deborah.

An additional problem is that as children approach their teenage years, academic effort and excellence can be seen as ‘nerdy’ or ‘uncool’ by their peer group. ‘Teenagers are at a confusing stage of brain development where they know the educational stakes are high, but are also trying to fit in with their friends,’ Deborah agrees.

10 ways to keep your child motivated to learn

The good news is that there’s plenty we can do to encourage our children to stay motivated without having to nag them constantly or micromanage their schoolwork.

1. Play up the importance of effort.

‘We feel greater satisfaction when we’ve achieved something than difficult than when we’ve done something easy,’ says Deborah. ‘Remind your child how good it feels to strive and achieve, and celebrate their success when they’ve put in effort.’

2. Feed their curiosity.

If your child has a passion for something – whether that’s maths, music or My Little Pony – they’ll naturally be motivated to do it, and that can help instil good habits. ‘Be child-led and let them explore their curiosity, even if it seems a bit odd to you,’ Deborah advises.

3. Be curious yourself.

If we want our children to be motivated to achieve, we need to demonstrate that behaviour ourselves. ‘Children’s chances of success in a particular area are massively enhanced if their parents have a passion for it,’ Deborah says. ‘For example, if you want your child to learn piano, don’t just send them to lessons: be involved with their practice, and let them see you playing an instrument yourself.’

4. Build their self-esteem.

‘Rather than saying, “Don’t worry, I know you’re not very good at spelling,” which compounds a lack of self-belief, build your child’s self-esteem by saying, “I understand you’re finding this difficult, but if we keep working at it, we’ll get there,”’ Deborah advises.

5. Focus on the future.

As your child gets older, especially once they’ve started secondary school, you can challenge their lack of motivation by highlighting the importance of working hard. ‘They need reminding that the work they’re doing now is preparing them for future success, and that it’s worth putting in the effort now to have more choices later in life,’ Deborah says. This can be more effective in building motivation than pointing out short-term gains, such as a good mark in a test.

6. Know when to step back.

It’s natural to feel frustrated if your child isn’t trying their hardest, but try not to slip into nagging and remonstrating. ‘Sometimes children and teenagers feel highly charged and emotional,’ Deborah explains. ‘At these times, they’re not in the mood for a rational conversation, so save it until they’re in a better frame of mind.’

7. Support, but don’t take over.

Metaphorically holding your child’s hand through every piece of homework might make them get it done, but it won’t increase their self-motivation, so aim to guide and support without taking over. ‘Success comes as a result of practice, and children are most likely to succeed if they choose to practise for themselves,’ says Deborah.

8. Celebrate effort rather than achievement.

If your child struggles to motivate themselves, it can be tempting to offer incentives: for example, linking pocket money to good marks at school. ‘The problem with bribery is that it creates a mentality where children are just looking for what they have to do to “win the game”,’ Deborah explains. ‘It’s better to reward effort than achievement, whether that’s with praise and kind words or something concrete.’

9. Ask the right questions.

You can engender a love of learning in your child by showing genuine interest in what they’re doing at school. ‘Make time to talk, and instead of asking what your child did at school, ask them what they learnt and what was interesting,’ advises Deborah. ‘This starts a dialogue, rather than simply getting your child to list what they’ve been doing.’

10. Don’t crowd out fun.

Yes, schoolwork matters, but it’s vital to balance it with time for your child to do what they enjoy. ‘We have to exercise common sense: having fun doesn’t mean your child won’t have future success, so make sure they still get to go out with their friends and take part in things they enjoy,’ says Deborah.

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