Motivating the Unmotivated Child

“I didn’t learn much in school last year,” said the 11 year old boy I look after.

“Oh, really?” I asked. “Why not?”

“I don’t think my teacher was very good and it felt like a waste of time going to school,” he replied. “I learned a lot more at home with you.”

Well, if that didn’t make my heart swell with pride! Of course, I wish he’d learned more at school and felt like he was getting something out of it, but the reality is that government schools just don’t deliver very well on teaching most of the time for most kids. For kids in public schools, parents and other caring adults need to pick up the slack.

While we at Four Birds strongly advocate homeschooling as the ideal, we realise that not every family is well placed to start homeschooling for a variety of reasons. So what can you do to help your child learn outside of school?

The particular boy I work with is an extremely motivated learner who has not yet had his desire for learning crushed by the state, which makes my job with him much easier, but many parents may find their children no longer have any interest in academic learning after their school teachers have turned it into a hated chore. If this is where you are starting, your first task is to rekindle the natural hunger for knowledge that children innately have. You may have a child who refuses to learn maths or spelling, but eagerly learns the rules to any new sport or computer game or spends hours figuring out how to assemble  a Lego set. Children want to learn when they are motivated to do so- when the result of their learning is pleasurable.

Start by finding new things for them to learn, not necessarily academic, that offer quick, satisfactory rewards. For example, many children like sweets- teach them how to follow a simple recipe to make a cake or cookies. They will get the satisfaction of having created something they can enjoy, something they can be proud of, while learning a new skill (and also an opportunity to practice reading and math skills). Every new hobby is an opportunity for learning, many everyday tasks can be turned into teachable moments. Children also love being included in what adults are doing, so take them shopping, let them help set a budget, include them in home repairs. Everything you do as an adult is something you once had to learn and someone once had to teach you. Teach these things to your kids and watch their confidence soar as they become more independent, more responsible, and feel valued as a member of the family. When kids realise that learning can be fun and isn’t always drudgery, their motivation to learn academic subjects will also increase. A child who once believed he couldn’t learn math will have a lot more self-confidence once he finds himself practicing basic sums and measurements while helping his father build something, for example.

Now, sometimes the focus needs to be solely on academic work. Children in public schools receive homework assignments and are subjected to regular testing and grading. You may find the rare child who can motivate themselves throughout an entire school term by the promise of the end-of-term report card and the hope of seeing straight As, but most kids want more immediate rewards.

There’s a lot of talk about different learning styles: Some people learn better from hands-on tasks or from listening or from reading or whatever. The fact is, all kids learn well when learning is fun and interesting. A few years ago, I worked with a child who was really struggling academically and was very far behind the rest of his class in memorising his multiplication tables. He absolutely hated doing the worksheets his teacher sent home with him, filling in the answers to one multiplication problem after another. I can’t say I blamed him- after sitting still in class all day, the last thing he wanted to do was sit still at home after school. Multiplication tables are pretty boring and it can be hard to make them fun. This boy, however, had recently become very interested in basketball, as his older brother had started playing and he wanted to be allowed to be included when his older brother played basketball with friends. Being included by his older brother was a far better motivator than pleasing his teacher at school or getting good grades. So, we did our times tables while playing basketball. I would ask him a multiplication question and if he got it right, he got to take a certain number of shots before the next question (if we were doing the 6 times tables, he got to take 6 shots for every right answer) and if he got it wrong, I got to take a shot. We spent far more time shooting hoops than drilling times tables, but by the end of the year, he knew his times tables up through the 8s, which is what his school had wanted, and he had become quite good at what he called “swish shots”.

As kids become older and their workload from school increases and focuses more on actual desk tasks, such as writing research papers, it can become much harder to motivate kids to study. This is why it is so important to start this process of making learning fun from a young age so that you don’t find yourself with a teenager who hates anything to do with reading, writing, or studying of any kind and is extremely resentful of being told he must spend his time in this manner. By the time your child is a teenager, the idea of cracking open a book to learn something new should not be a daunting task for them.

Ultimately, no matter the age of your child, I believe strongly in the importance of cultivating a child’s interests and passions. When children are supported and encouraged to develop specialities in whatever lights a spark in their mind, they will seek out every opportunity to learn about that particular thing on their own. Notice your child’s talents and potential and do everything within your means to encourage them to make use of the gifts they have. Keep in mind that their interests may not be your interests- do not discourage your children from hobbies they enjoy or try to steer them instead towards your own passions, as so many parents do. Children appreciate having their talents noticed and acknowledged by the adults in their life.

Presently, the boy I look after is very interested in prop making and YouTube videos. He willingly seeks out information on how to become better at making props and videos, looking information about types of equipment to use and various techniques. Every day, he is gushing about some new, exciting information he has read up on. His reading speed and comprehension has grown by leaps and bounds, as have his problem solving skills. He has carried these “soft skills” over to his school work and we’ve seen his school grades get better on every report card.

The short of it is, children need space and support to learn in their own way, in their own time, about things that interest them. This is how we cultivate a love of learning. No child ever learned to love learning by doing pages upon pages of busy work at school. No, they love learning when they can see its practical application to their own lives and are encouraged to explore and discover their potential.

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