“Hi Mom, I’m going to start my homework before I play any Xbox this afternoon.”
Ah, the dream statement. Unfortunately, homework time sounds a lot less like this, and a lot more like a war between many parents and students.
Homework, and school in general, can become a battlefield, leading parents to desperately scramble for a solution…any solution. And they’re probably asking themselves why their student just isn’t motivated to do well.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Ann Dolin, M.Ed., about the relationship between students, parents and motivation.
Ann is a renowned educator, with 20 years of teaching and tutoring experience. She owns Education Connections, a tutoring company serving the greater Washington D.C. area, and she’s also the author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions to Stress-Free Homework.
As an expert in the field of education and homework, we went to Ann to gain a deeper understanding of factors impacting motivation, and what, if anything, parents and educators can do to improve a student’s level of motivation.
What is Motivation?
Ultimately, motivation can be defined in an individual context, but for Ann, it’s about the willingness to initiate and see a task through to fruition.
Although it’s easy to only see the differences, Ann sees a very common trait between all types of students, whether they’re viewed as motivated or not, and that’s the desire to please and succeed, even if it doesn’t always appear this way.
It’s easy as a parent or educator to simply write a student off as lazy when he or she isn’t displaying motivation, but more than laziness, it’s often a factor of not knowing how to get to the point at which they need and want to be.
Lack of Motivation vs. Lack of Knowledge
Key to understanding how to help your child is first determining whether it truly is a lack of motivation, or a lack of knowledge leading to less-than-optimal school performance.
According to Ann, in many cases it is a lack of knowledge creating a student’s struggles, and this becomes even truer in cumulative subjects, like upper-level math and complex science subjects.
As a student gets more and more behind in a subject that builds on itself, they’re more likely to feel their motivation wane.
What’s My Role?
Even more than understanding motivation as a whole, most parents are frustrated and simply want to know how they can help their student.
For Ann, the ideal parental role in the homework and school process shifts as a child gets older. During the early school years, a lot of handholding is required, but as a student gets older it’s time for parents to take a step back and simply ask two questions:
“What homework do you have?”
“When will you do it?”
Asking these questions allows a parent to remain involved, while still giving their child the freedom to take initiative.
The time to step in occurs when a student isn’t able to succeed in school, given this level of freedom.
Can I Increase Motivation?
While Ann points out the fact that parents can’t actually increase their child’s level of motivation, there are ways to create an environment she refers to as “ripe for motivation.”
Regardless of your student’s age or grade level, it’s important to create boundaries that promote motivation, such as the limitation of technology and the creation of a calm, quiet environment in which to complete assignments.
Determining when and where homework will begin are a key way parents can play a role. Ann recommends creating three designated homework spaces that your child can go to at any time—they should be clutter-free, and a bedroom is never the ideal place to do homework.
Process and Product
From her experience as an educator, Ann sees one of the most common motivation-based conflicts as stemming from parents’ tendency to focus on the product (the grade), more than the process. She states that while the product is important, a child has to know the process required to achieve that product.
Her steps to create a process include:
1 – Creating a time to talk.
If your child comes home with a D in geometry, it’s easy to become emotional and fly off the handle. Instead, designate a time to talk to your child, when you’ve both calmed down.
2 – Open up the dialogue and create a system for improvement.
This is where the focus on process comes into play. Ask your child for suggestions as to how he or she feels they can improve, and then lay out clear steps based on these suggestions.
3 – Create short term goals.
Children and teens work best with short term, manageable goals. Create these goals, and then check in on progress periodically, without micromanaging.
Ultimately, long-term rewards in general aren’t the most effective approach to motivating your student, based on Ann’s experiences.
Children and young people tend to see long-term timelines unattainable and complicated. She instead recommends taking a when-then approach. “When you complete your homework, then you can play video games for thirty minutes.”
Does Punishment Work?
When it comes to schoolwork and motivation, the answer overwhelmingly appears to be no, particularly if punishment involves taking away something your child loves.
Many parents become frustrated, and resort to punishments like taking away soccer, dance or whatever activity their child is most interested in. The result? Frequently, it’s less motivation.
According to Ann, letting your child pursue activities he or she loves or is interested in are one of the best ways to improve motivation.
In fact, she encourages parents of “unmotivated” students to focus on their strengths, whatever those may be. Even if your child loves spending hours playing a video game, engage them to learn why they love it, and you’re more likely to build their self-esteem and confidence, which spills over to other areas of their life, including school. By taking an interest, you can also pinpoint factors that drive and motivate them outside of school, and use those to increase school and homework engagement.
By taking an interest in your child’s interests, and listening to what they’re saying, your child is also more likely to listen to what you’re saying, which can have a big impact on school and motivation.
While it’s not ideal to hold your child’s hand and create a sense of dependency, you can foster an environment that’s well-suited to success in school, and encourage your child to pursue whatever it is he or she loves, even if it’s something outside of school.
Ultimately, while motivation may come and go throughout your child’s time in school, and you may not be able to directly motivate your child, you can certainly play a significant role in how your child sees themselves, which often translates to a better school experience.
What about you, how do you motivate your child? Leave your comments below! Register to our newsletter to receive more tips on parenting!