How to Keep Kids Motivated to Learn

How to Keep Kids Motivated to Learn

How can you help your kids or students find and keep their motivation, not just for learning but for all the activities and tasks in their lives?

Before we were allowed to take our son, Leif, home from the hospital where we lived in Bozeman, MT, hospital staff had us watch the “Happiest Baby On The Block” video. True to the instructions, that first week we swaddled, shushed, and swung Leif for hours, but we didn’t listen to our hearts in terms of what we thought Leif needed. The techniques from the video made us feel like there should be clear-cut answers. Leif would cry and we would do the “5 S’s.” We didn’t allow ourselves to sit with the discomfort of his crying and wonder what might be happening for him. We didn’t trust ourselves as parents, we just wanted answers.

It turned out that the reason Leif was crying was because of a painful medical condition. But we didn’t find that out until we threw away the book and started to trust ourselves as parents. Looking back at that time I am so mad at myself for not realizing sooner that his cry didn’t sound typical. I wish I knew then how difficult parenting is and that there are NO EASY ANSWERS and anytime someone offers an easy solution to a complex parenting situation, be skeptical. 

I feel the same way about motivation: It’s a complex topic and hundreds of self-help books offer easy solutions. We all know this from our own experience with New Year’s resolutions. I am not proud of the pile of dusty exercise equipment in my garage, but every year I optimistically buy the latest gadget or follow the latest 5-step fitness plan or try the latest diet only to lose motivation around February.

How do you stay motivated? What do you do to keep yourself engaged in difficult tasks? How can you help your kids or students find and keep their motivation, not just for learning but for all the activities and tasks in their lives?

It’s a bit like parenting: Be skeptical of easy answers. Trust your heart. And instead of focusing on motivation itself, maybe stand back a little bit and squint at the systems that surround it. There is no simple answer to helping your child stay motivated, but there are some things that can help you find your own answers.

First is clear, consistent boundaries. Having a space, time, and environment where working is expected can go a long way to getting work done. This is true for schoolwork and also true for things like chores, activities and other responsibilities. Taking the time to sit down with your child and make a list of the day’s work can save you time trying to motivate them later. To use my exercise example from earlier, this is equivalent to working out each day at the same time, having what you need in one spot, and having clear expectations and an end point so you don’t negotiate with yourself as things get difficult. 

A second strategy is rewards. Maybe we would like learning or other difficult tasks to be their own rewards, but often that’s just not the case. Until learning and achievement become their own “carrot” pulling your child forward, or at least until routines become habits, you may need to augment intrinsic motivation with a system of external rewards. What is a good reward? Excellent question! A good reward is as individual as your child. A good starting point can be to explore your child’s “Love Language.” Yes, this is a popular self-help book, and yes, I am not a fan of most self-help books, but I find The 5 Love Languages can be a great starting point for discovering with your child what would work best to reward them for their motivation. The authors have even created quizzes for children and teens so your child can learn their love language.

Motivation is hard. Parenting is hard. When you add these two together, the result is even greater than the sum of the parts, meaning that motivating your kids is not just really hard, but really, really hard. Our opportunity as parents is to open our hearts to the challenge. Create the “container” for motivation and then work to discover how to reward your unique, individual child for doing their best. By trusting ourselves to be both firm and compassionate, we can help our kids keep pushing forward, even when it’s hard.