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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >



Building Self-Motivation


Q. How can I help my child be more motivated about school and put in extra effort?


It's pretty sad to note that a private donor in Tucson, AZ, is now paying high school students $25 a week just to show up at school. It's a dropout prevention plan, and he's paying the "incentives" out of the goodness of his heart. But what a commentary on life today, that kids have to be paid to go to school.


What's happened to the idea that school is a privilege and an opportunity? Too many kids today see it as boring and irrelevant. Researcher John Goodlad might have pegged part of the reason: he blames "the compliance mentality" that has a stranglehold on educational excellence in public schools - just do the bare minimum and you'll get by. The spark of motivation and thirst for learning are just not as common in today's students as they used to be. There's also a problem with the Political Correctness and self-esteem orgy awash in our schools, that nobody should ever flunk, nobody should ever fail, nobody should get to be the valedictorian because it makes all the other kids feel bad, and so on.

The worst influence of all along these lines are government learning standards, which are in place almost everywhere and a direct influence even on private schools and homeschools, by osmosis. Because these standards are tailored for the middle of the learning curve - the average student - there's no motivation for the top 50% of the student body to try a little harder. They can meet the standards - they're "easy" for them - so why go beyond?


If you have nothing but mediocre standards, you're going to have nothing but mediocre students.


Putting a focus on the effort or lack of it by students is not intrinsically a bad idea.  We just have to assess whether the problem of low achievement is a problem of motivation (a "won't" problem) or a problem of ability (a "can't" problem).


It's pretty obvious in the early grades of school when a child has a learning problem that it's a "can't" problem - the child can't read. That's caused by inadequate teaching, in the vast majority of cases. Self-motivation won't work if the skills simply aren't there. The answer: get your child's academic skills in place, using outside tutoring if school can't do the job.


However, teachers and parents begin to notice problems of motivation - the "won't" problem -- by fourth and fifth grade. Lack of skill from poor teaching in the previous years plays a large part. But there's an observable lack of effort on the part of many kids that can mushroom into the set of behaviors we know as "slacking" - failure to do homework, grades slipping, falling asleep in class, skipping school, preference for socializing over study, and so forth. Even with a high IQ and supportive parents, a lack of self-motivation can torpedo an academic career.


At many schools, educators find it necessary develop a policy to assign detentions and Saturday school to get some of the students to do their assignments, ones which the educators are sure they are capable of doing. 


How did students get the idea that they are not personally responsible for the work that they do in school? Yes, teachers should address motivation in planning their lessons and orchestrating the classroom experience, making them relevant, challenging and still attainable. And yes, students need assignments that are appropriate for their skill levels and provide differentiated tasks.


What parents should supply is this truth: not all learning is fun. For higher-level thinking and other complex skills, you have to put in the long hours and hard work. Competence in reading, writing, and problem-solving depends on a mastery of basics, the fundamentals that can only develop with student effort.

Parents also should help their children with test preparation, listening skills, academic goal-setting and personal-assessment activities. Help your grade-school child make a chart logging how many books read outside of school or mark on a refrigerator calendar the steps to take over the next two weeks to get that big project done on time. In high school, your child should instantly know his or her GPA and what graduation requirements are left undone.

More than anything else, parents should send kids of all ages to school well-nourished, well-rested, and well-coached on how serious and important school is. The rest is up to your child . . . but with parental support, encouragement, attention and love, those goals are well within reach.


Homework: Here's an interesting commentary that contends that schools actually quash self-motivation in students and replace it with a compliance mentality:


By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 13 2008


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