'He's Not Motivated': How Can We Strengthen a Child's Effort and Motivation to Learn?

To understand a child's lack of motivation, we need to return to first principles: Children, when they are not angry or discouraged, want to do well. They want to earn our praise and approval, and they want us to be proud of them. Children may say that they don't care, but they do care.
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In a previous post, I discussed the problem of children's lack of motivation and grit. Today, I would like to offer some additional thoughts and recommendations for helping kids with this common, but often difficult, problem.

To understand a child's lack of motivation, we need to return to first principles: Children, when they are not angry or discouraged, want to do well. They want to earn our praise and approval, and they want us to be proud of them. Children may say that they don't care, but they do care.

Children are not lazy. They may be frustrated, anxious or angry; they may have become disillusioned or defiant, self-critical or pessimistic, and they may lack confidence in their ability. But this is not laziness. The misconception that kids are lazy is one of the most common -- and most destructive -- misunderstandings of children.

Often, they have become discouraged. Their discouragement is present not only in their lack of initiative and effort, but also (and perhaps more ominously) in their imagination -- their sense of what is possible for themselves. Inwardly, they have also given up.

The problem of "lack of motivation" is the problem of demoralization, whether overt or disguised.

Rewards and punishments have some short-term effect on children's effort. We are all motivated, to some extent, to earn rewards and avoid punishment. But rewards cannot create interests or long-term goals. They cannot create a sense of purpose or help children find meaning in the work that they do.

How Can We Strengthen A Child's Motivation to Learn?

1. Motivation begins with interest. Where there is interest, there is curiosity and a desire to know more. To motivate children, we need, first, to support their interests and help them expand these interests into projects and goals. We will then be in a better position to demonstrate the relevance of learning -- why it is important to know what others have already learned and accomplished, and what we can learn from them.

In my office, when I ask children and adolescents about their interests, they are almost always happy to talk. Often, they are interested in films or technology or in fashion, sports or music. (To my chagrin, few know the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Stan Getz. But most like music.)

Then, as long as we are respectful and not dismissive, they are usually willing, and sometimes eager, to hear our point of view. They want to know what we think. If we are critical or dismissive, however, we will lose them.

Too often, as parents, in our understandable desire to help kids improve, we neglect this essential aspect of children's motivation (as my colleagues and I also sometimes do, in our zeal to solve a child's problems).

2. Find the source of their frustration and discouragement. When children are discouraged, they often say that they "hate" school or "hate" homework. Or that it is pointless and irrelevant. We will rarely be able to talk them out of this, no matter how hard we try.

Undiagnosed (or under-appreciated) attention and learning disorders are the most common source of discouragement and lack of sustained effort ("motivation") in children. For these children, doing schoolwork or homework is like running with a sprained ankle -- it is possible, although painful -- and they will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task. Or they may run 10 steps and then find a reason to stop.

Talking to children about the importance of effort and hard work, however well-intentioned and however true, or grounding them for their avoidance of schoolwork, will not help. Children have heard this all before. Telling them that they have to try harder will only make them feel angry and misunderstood.

3. Offer encouragement, not criticism. We should acknowledge every increment of effort and progress (even when his effort falls far short of our goal) and express confidence in his eventual success. This may be the essence of encouragement: We make note of every improvement, not every mistake.

Our role model should be Dorothy DeLay, teacher of Itzak Perlman and other great violinists at the Julliard School. (DeLay's teaching method is described in Carol Dweck's excellent book, Mindset.) One of DeLay's students recalled a time when he was working to improve his sound. DeLay listened patiently until he played a note particularly well. She then commented, "Now, that's a beautiful sound." She then explained how every note has to have a beautiful beginning, middle and end, leading into the next note. And the student thought, "Wow! If I can do it there, I can do it everywhere."

4. Focus on their strengths. In school, we teach children that it is important to do well in all their classes. In life, our success depends much more on doing one thing well.

I recently learned that George Gershwin, as a young boy, was incorrigible, truant and hyperactive -- until he found music. And, of course, so was Babe Ruth -- until (and perhaps after) he found baseball.

Even children with significant learning problems demonstrate areas of competence or qualities of character that should be a source of inner pride and a foundation for their future success. These strengths need to be recognized and supported.

5. Give them time. Finally, don't give up. Demoralization has developed over time. It takes time for children to overcome their self-doubt and to let go of cynical and defiant attitudes.

Over time, she has become sensitized to disappointments and stuck in moments of frustration. The more that her demoralization has spread, the more that her pessimism and rebellion have become habitual, the more time she will need.

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