Motivating Kids to Learn

Think about the things in your life you are strongly motivated to do, and those your are not. You being an adult, are probably still more motivated to enjoy a good book, or hobby, than try to relearn high school math. Right? Kids are the same and we cannot expect kids just to want to learn. It can be tempting to think that if your kids are “good,” they will be motivated to learn and do as you ask. Many parents erroneously believe that kids are not motivated or focused on a learning activity because they are rude, naughty, or irresponsible. But that’s not the case. 

Something that I would implant into every parent’s brain if I could is that your children really do want to please you, and they will if they can. It’s very hard for kids to focus on something that they don’t understand or care about. Please don’t be upset with your kids if they don’t care about every topic they are supposed to learn. Honestly, some of them are just plain boring. This is the great challenge of teaching, taking something that a child doesn’t care much about, helping them care or be motivated, and transferring that knowledge into their brains. We are talking about changing brain synapses here. It may not be brain surgery, but it is brain science. 

So, your kids hate online school, and you are ready to pull your hair out battling with them. Step back for a minute and breath. Now, like right now. I’m serious before you continue reading, pause, and take a deep, slow breath in and out. This will help your nervous system recognize that you are not running from a sabertooth tiger (or fractions lesson), and you don’t need to go into fight, flight, freeze, or fib. Now breathe again. You deserve it.

Here are some realistic things you can do to help motivate your child. 

  1. Try to see things from your child’s point of view. If you have ever had to sit and play dolls or something similar with a child and felt bored, realize that your child feels that way about some learning activities (hopefully not all). 
  2. It is fine to “bribe” your child. I know parents sometimes think their child should just want to learn, but honestly, adults need “bribes” as well. Would you go to work every day if no one was going to pay you? Would sitting and playing Barbie’s for an hour be a little easier if you knew you would get to a date night afterward. Kids are not motivated to learn just because it will benefit them in the future. The future is way too far away, and they need a little payoff now. 
  3. Find out what your child is willing to work for and use that as the reward. Kids are all different, so you need to watch closely to see what they will work for. My kids like electronics way too much. Way too much. But, they make a powerful motivator. Don’t automatically give your kids electronics time; make them earn it. But make it positive, don’t threaten them with it. It’s best to help them feel like they have a little control over their lives–necessary actually. Perhaps the harder or more they work, the more time they earn. Side note: Please know what your kids are doing online and have safety filters on everything. 
  4. Younger children do tend to like tangible objects like stickers, squishy toys, etc. I will show you a picture of my prize box and share links to the stuff I bought if you want to. But do what works for you. Only note, the prizes should be very cheap or even free. Don’t go overboard, which is oddly less motivating. They’re not earning Disneyland here, but maybe an ice cream cone, or Playdoh.
  5. Make learning as fun as possible. Lookup (and please, please screen first) a fun YouTube video on the subject you are teaching your child. You can read together, every other word, sentence, paragraph, or page. 
  6. Break things up into chunks. Your child’s attention span is generally as long as their age in minutes. So a seven-year-old can focus for seven minutes. It’s even less if your child has a learning disability or ADHD. This okay though, it doesn’t mean you have to stop learning at seven minutes, can you imagine. But, you should switch it up a little. Have them do ten jumping jacks and get back to work or continue learning the same thing differently, like switching from flashcards to a worksheet. 
  7. Speaking of flashcards. These are fantastic for learning facts. Our brains tend to learn things in little flashcard sized chunks. Think about a recent event in your life. As you remember, you will have different flashes of memory. These memories don’t play out precisely in order or like a movie. Teach your child how to make and effectively use flashcards. For younger kids, play games like matching, Go Fish, or even timing them and then seeing if they can beat their past speed. 
  8. Make it as learning as realistically fun as possible. When your child gets frustrated, stop immediately, teach them to calm themselves down, breathe, take a brain break (blowing bubbles is amazing because it teaches them to breathe deeply, and then gently get back to work. Do not force an overstimulated or upset child to continue working. They won’t learn a thing except that they hate learning. 
  9. I wouldn’t suggest rewards like extra time with a parent (love), because those things should always be freely given. You don’t want a child ever to think they have to earn your love. 
  10. Know when it’s too much. If your child’s teacher asks too much, which is very possible because they do not know what it’s like to be on the student’s end. Particularly those that don’t have kids at home yet. If it’s too much–tell them. Even an email saying that you’ve worked on a concept and your child gets it, but the assignment is too much is fine. As teachers and parents, we are all figuring this out together, but we don’t want our kids to suffer just because we don’t have online learning mastered yet. Say no when you need to.
  11. Kids lose motivation and get discouraged very quickly if they don’t understand what they are learning or supposed to do. Helping your child know that it is perfectly normal not to understand things right away and develop a growth mindset is a powerful motivator. 
  12. Setting up a school/learning routine works as a “motivator” in that humans are very much creatures of habit. If your child just knows that a specific time every day is school time, it will be less of a battle. 
  13. If your child loves something like games, music, art, or whatever, try to find a way to incorporate that into their learning. I am a grownup and very artistic minded, and I still love to take notes in different fun colored pens. My daughter is super social, and to learn math facts, we will get a page of them, and she will do one, and then I will do one while we chat together. 
  14. Admit to your children when you don’t know something. Especially for kids in higher grades, they are learning many things, and some of them are pretty complicated. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know; let’s learn this together.” Learning with your child helps them see you as an example and enables you to see the real challenge that your child is up against.

Here are a few links to motivating rewards I have used for my children and students.

Sensory toys: These are great rewards and then your child can use them while doing schoolwork to stay focused:

Sensory Toys
Small rewards for younger students.
Bubbles: These are a favorite reward of mine because they also help teach kids deep breathing.

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