Do you have trouble motivating your children to study?
It’s a common problem that I see in my coaching work with pre-teens and teens.
I notice that many parents approach this problem in the wrong way.
In this article, I’m going to explain 10 principles for motivating children to do well in school.
How NOT to motivate your teenager to do better in school
The first five items on the list below might be things you’ve done in the past, but there’s no reason to get down on yourself about them.
They’re simply common parenting habits that are born from good intentions, but ultimately are not effective motivational tools.
You can start today to become a better listener, less controlling, and more accepting. Let’s take a look at what to avoid going forward.
1. Don’t annoy your children
One of the keys to motivating your children to work hard is not to annoy them.
This may seem odd at first, as we’re used to parents getting annoyed with children, not vice versa.
But relationships are a two-way street, and parents can also annoy children.
If your children are continually upset with you over things you say or do, they will find it hard to listen to you.
You may have some great wisdom to offer them, but your children won’t be receptive to your advice.
Parents often engage in power struggles with their children. For some of us, these are habits we learned from our own childhoods.
But power struggles with your children consume a lot of energy. And that’s energy that could be spent on something more constructive.
Another habit to avoid is making comments that suggest your child isn’t good enough.
This may be something you’re not aware that you do.
It may be very subtle. For example, take the statement: “You’re improving, but I know you can do better.”
On the surface, it sounds like encouragement. But you’re actually telling your child that he or she isn’t good enough.
Or take a statement that begins: “When I was your age…” These kinds of statements usually involve a comparison that leaves your children feeling bad. So avoid making these types of comments.
Another trap that parents fall into is comparing their children with someone else’s. Parents often hope that these comparisons will inspire their children to do better.
Unfortunately, these comments have the opposite effect.
“I hear that John got A’s in all his subjects the last term” may seem like an innocent remark. But it’s a comparison that leaves your child feeling worse about himself or herself.
This is not the way to motivate your children.
Sometimes, parents try to motivate their children by giving them lectures. But lectures tend to make children feel powerless and resentful.
Instead of lecturing your children, discuss the issue with them and ask them what they think. This is much more effective than lecturing them.
Because it gets them involved, and makes them part of the solution.
2. Don’t use rewards, punishments, or threats
As a parent, it’s tempting to use rewards, punishments or threats to motivate your children to behave in a certain way.
Research has shown this approach doesn’t work in the long term.
There are three reasons in particular that rewards and punishments are to be avoided.
Firstly, rewards and punishments are bad for your relationship with your children.
They teach your children that they’re loved for what they do and not for who they are. Children who grow up unsure that they’re loved for who they are tend to make poor life choices later on.
Secondly, rewards and punishments may get short-term results, but they ignore the underlying issue: Why is your child not motivated?
It’s much better to address the root cause than to use a band-aid approach of rewards and punishments.
Thirdly, rewards and punishments put your children’s focus entirely on outcomes. Your children’s level of motivation is based on the promise of the reward or the threat of the punishment.
Rewards, punishments and threats don’t teach your children how to develop intrinsic motivation. They don’t cultivate in your children a love of learning.
As mentioned earlier in this article, it’s better to focus on the process and not the outcome. This way, your children will develop self-discipline and a sense of responsibility.
So what should you do instead of using rewards and punishments?
Discuss with your children the joy (and benefits) of learning and studying.
Explain to them that most rewarding careers require an investment of time and effort.
But it’s also important to explain to your children that the process itself is rewarding, even though it will involve sacrifices.
Discuss with your children what their hopes and aspirations are.
Help them to dream big and dare to fail – and model for them how you’re doing the same in your own life.
This approach produces the kind of intrinsic motivation and self-discipline that will last a lifetime.
3. Don’t try to control all of their actions
If you want to motivate your children, they need to feel as if they’re in control of their lives.
Being motivated comes from knowing that you can shape your future through the actions you take today.
But if children feel as if their parents are in complete (or almost complete) control, they will have little motivation.
Some parents hover over their children. They micromanage every last detail of their children’s lives.
The result is that the children never develop a sense that they’re responsible for their education and their lives.
By empowering your children, they’ll develop a sense of autonomy and responsibility.
Talk to your children regularly about expectations and consequences.
As a parent, I’m sure you have expectations of your children. For example, you may expect them to keep their room tidy – and there may be consequences for not doing that.
Learning to be responsible in one area (keeping their room tidy) encourages them to be responsible in other areas of life, such as studying.
With this approach, you still need to be involved in your children’s lives. The difference is that instead of hovering and micromanaging, you create boundaries around your involvement.
For example, you can make it clear to your children that you’re available to answer homework-related questions every weeknight between 8 pm and 9 pm.
This way, your children will develop the ability to motivate themselves. They’ll know that they alone are responsible for making sure their homework gets done.
In contrast, consider children whose parents nag them every day to do their homework. Those children won’t develop the ability to motivate themselves.
4. Don’t obsess over the results; emphasise the process instead
The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
This principle applies to study skills and tips as much as it does to life in general.
When motivating your children to do well in school, focus on the process and not the results.
If your children are too focused on results, there’s a danger that when they don’t achieve the results they want, they’ll give up.
What’s more, when we focus only on results, the process becomes a “necessary evil”.
The process becomes something we go through grudgingly because we want a certain result.
But this approach doesn’t encourage a love of learning.
We live in an age when learning is a skill that we need to practise throughout our lives. The world is changing faster than ever before. As such, we all need to be continually learning.
And that’s why it’s important to focus on the process, not the results.
Cultivate in your children a love of learning for its own sake, not just as a means to achieve a goal. At the end of the day, achieving goals is a by-product of the systems and processes that we follow.
For example, as a concert pianist, you may have a goal to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat major without making a single mistake.
The system or process that makes it possible to reach that goal is how often you practise, how you break down and learn difficult cadenzas, and how you incorporate feedback from your music teacher.
When teaching children how to study and how to motivate themselves, it’s vital that you focus on the process and not the outcome.
5. Don’t reduce your child to a problem that needs to be solved
Pre-teens and teens are going through a lot of changes, both physically and mentally.
It’s also a time when they may start displaying problematic behaviours, such as aggression, mood swings, being argumentative, and defying established rules.
As a parent, it’s natural for these kinds of behaviours to become the centre of your attention – they’re problems that you want to solve.
But it’s actually better not to focus on these behaviours.
Instead, try to understand your children’s perspective:
- How do they feel about the situation?
- What opinions do they have?
To understand your children better, you’ll need to practise active listening.
Active listening occurs when we give our full attention to what someone is saying.
This means that you aren’t multitasking while your children are talking to you. It means that you aren’t checking your phone or writing a list of things to do.
Active listening means not interrupting your children while they’re talking. It means not judging them or moralising about something they did. It means not offering unsolicited advice.
You can show your children that you’re giving them your full attention by saying things like “go on” and “tell me more”.
Now and again, summarise your understanding of what your children have been saying.
For example, you could say: “It sounds as if there’s a ‘cool’ group of kids in your class, and that you’re feeling excluded by them.”
This indicates to your child that you’re actively listening. It’s also a way of checking that you understand what he or she is saying.
Some parents think that if only they could make their children understand some fundamental principle, the whole problem would disappear.
But often what pre-teens and teens need most is not to understand; they need to feel understood.
When they don’t feel understood, they become defiant.
On the other hand, when they feel understood, it creates a space where they feel safe. And that, in turn, creates an environment where they’re open to looking at the problem in a new light.
How to motivate your teenager to do better in school
Now it’s time to focus on positive behaviour that helps your child feel understood, supported, and encouraged.
Use these strategies to strengthen your connection with your child and teach him or her crucial organisational and planning skills. These healthy habits will help your child in school and beyond.
6. Develop routines and structure
Routines and structure play a crucial role in developing motivation in your children.
Having established routines in family life eliminates a majority of conflicts.
Take homework, for example.
Let’s say you have an established routine that your children do their homework every weeknight between 7 pm and 9 pm.
There won’t be conflicts related to homework, because it’s simply “the way we do things in this family”.
But in a family without routines, ensuring that your children do their homework becomes a daily battle.
Of course, even established routines sometimes need to be reinforced or modified.
For example, now and again you may need to say something like: “When you’ve completed your homework, you can go to Melissa’s house.”
To create a homework routine, it’s a good idea to set up a small part of the house as a study area.
Having a study area that’s free of distractions will help your children develop a homework routine.
It may also help your children if you also devote that period of time to doing your own “homework”. This could be paying bills online, taking an online course, or reading a book to learn about a new topic.
7. Equip your children with planning and organisational skills
As parents, we (hopefully) have planning and organisational skills that we’ve developed over the years.
But we often take these skills for granted, and forget that our children don’t yet have those skills.
Pre-teens and teens can feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and stressed because of the demands they face at school. In response, many of them give up and turn to videos and games as a form of escape.
Some pre-teens and teens might even say they hate school.
But if they have planning and organisational skills, their attitude toward school and academics will be different.
One organisational skill you can teach your children is to break down big tasks into smaller tasks.
Some people call this “chunking down”. This technique makes any task more manageable and doable.
Another skill you can teach your children is list-making. Lists are at the heart of all organisational skills, so this is a great place to start.
You could teach your children how to use a list to pack their bag for a school camp or a school outing.
Planning involves placing lists of tasks to be completed within a certain timeframe. This way, your children will learn to complete tasks one by one instead of leaving them until it’s so late that they feel overwhelmed.
For example, if your children have exams coming up, you could teach them how to:
- Break down their revision material into a series of tasks
- Use a calendar to plan how they’re going to complete those tasks within a set timeframe
8. Create a family culture where it’s OK to make mistakes
We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.
Thomas Edison made an extraordinary number of unsuccessful attempts at inventing the electric light bulb.
When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times, Edison replied: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Unfortunately, we live in an age that places enormous emphasis on instant success.
Failure isn’t tolerated. Parents correct their children’s homework to improve their grades. They argue with teachers who try to point out areas where their children need to improve.
Yet making mistakes is an essential part of learning.
We must learn from our mistakes and correct them, much like a ship that frequently adjusts its course to stay on the correct bearing.
If you want to motivate your children to study hard and do well in school, one of the best things you can do is create a family culture where it’s OK to make mistakes.
One way to do this is to share with your children your own mistakes and what you learned from them.
For example, maybe you went to university to study one field and ended up switching to a different field when you started work. By sharing that experience with your children, you’re showing them that they don’t have to get it “right” the first time.
If you want to teach your children to love learning, one thing you should avoid at all costs is focusing too much on their failures.
Instead of criticising them for their failures, help them to identify what they’ve learned from their mistakes.
A study by Stanford University has shown that children who are praised for their effort work harder and give up less easily.
On the other hand, children who are afraid of failure are more likely to become discouraged when they make mistakes. Instead of learning from their mistakes and moving on, they’re likely to give up altogether.
9. Show an interest in all aspects of your children’s lives
One of the keys to motivating your children to do well in school is to show an interest in all aspects of their lives, not just their academics.
If your only concern is how your children are doing in school, they may begin to feel as if they’re being treated as a project instead of as a person.
This can lead to them feeling resentful. And resentment will result in resistance to anything related to studying.
Treat your child as a whole person, not as a project or problem.
Listen to your children when they talk about their interests. Encourage them to get involved in non-school activities, like dance or drama or athletics.
How pre-teens and teens spend their time is crucial to their overall development.
An approach that focuses entirely on studying won’t help your children to develop in a balanced way.
Learning a musical instrument, playing a team sport, and taking an online course on entrepreneurship are all activities that will help your children to develop holistically.
These non-academic activities will give your children a much-needed break from their studies, and will help them to do better as they pursue their long-term academic goals.
10. Help your children to find a mentor
According to research by North Carolina State University, children who have mentors are more likely to become successful.
A mentor is an adult who acts as a role model for your children.
One of the benefits of your children having a mentor is that they will understand a perspective on life from someone who isn’t their parent.
The mentor’s values and attitudes may be similar to yours. But those values will mean more to your children when they’re modelled by someone outside the family.
One reason for this is that children inevitably become accustomed to their parents’ viewpoints and begin to tune their parents out.
Having a mentor is a chance for your children to re-engage with those values, from a fresh perspective.
A mentor can be particularly helpful when there’s an ongoing conflict between parents and children.
In this kind of situation, your children can benefit from having a neutral third party they can turn to. The mentor may help your children to see the issues from a new perspective.
So where can you find a mentor for your children?
A mentor could be:
- A sports coach, art teacher or music teacher
- A neighbour or family friend
- One of your co-workers
- Someone who runs a coaching/mentoring programme (I’m not ashamed to say that I fall into this category of people, because it’s extremely rewarding work)
These ten principles will help you to build in your child a deeper motivation to work hard.
Some of these principles, like establishing routines and structure, may take a while to implement. But other tips and principles you can put into practice right away.
For example, you can start practising active listening today.
I’m confident you’ll start seeing positive results.
(Here’s a link where you can explore more tips on how to motivate a teenager.)
Wishing you all the best on this challenging but meaningful journey!
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