10 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Better in School


“My son is a smart kid, but he doesn’t work hard in school. Now the   teacher said he’s in danger of getting F’s in most of his subjects.”

“My daughter just does enough to get by, instead of trying her best. When  I talk to her about how important it is to get good grades in high school, she   rolls her eyes and tells me she doesn’t care and that it’s boring. It’s enough   to make me pull my hair out.”

The  truth is, most kids are motivated, but not by what we think should motivate  them.


Do you have a child who comes  home with failing grades year after year—or  straight C’s when you know he could  get A’s? You assume, based on his  abilities, that he should be more successful  in school. It’s enough to drive  you crazy—especially because you know how  important it is for him to do well so  he can get into college someday—or even  just graduate. You’re worried sick  about his future, so you nag and get on his  case about his laziness, lack of  motivation and irresponsibility. You just  don’t get why he’s so uninterested in  doing well, so you try everything you can  think of to motivate him. But try as  you might, the situation doesn’t get  better—in fact, it gets worse.

Related:  Is your unmotivated child driving you crazy?

As a parent, it’s difficult not  to become invested in our child’s academic  life because we know how important  it is for their future. From our  perspective, it makes no sense that our kids  would put things like friends or  electronics before their work. The truth is,  most kids are motivated,  but not by  what we think should motivate them. Look at it this way: your child  is probably  highly motivated and not at all lazy when it comes to things that  excite him,  like video games, music, Facebook and what cool new jeans to buy.  One thing for  certain is that if you pressure your child in order to motivate  him, it almost  always makes things worse.

Understand that kids need to  buy into the value of doing well. Think about  it in terms of your own life—even  as an adult, you may know it’s best to eat  right, but actually following  through is another story! In a way, your child  must own the importance of doing  well himself. Of course external   factors may also get in the way (mental or physical illnesses, learning   disabilities or behavioral disorders, family issues and substance abuse, to   name a few.)

For some people, all the stars  are aligned at the right time—motivation,  skill and attitude combine to  create a successful outcome. But for most of us,  it’s way trickier and a much  more uneven path to motivation and success. When  you think about it, not every  kid asks teachers for help, does all their  homework on time all the time,  reviews the material they learned each night and  puts aside all the other  distractions to get down to their studies. The ones  who do are typically the  kids who have what is called “good executive  functioning,” because the front  part of their brain is more developed. This  plays a significant role in school  achievement. It helps the regulation of  emotions, attention span, perseverance,  and flexibility. For many, many kids  their functioning often does not develop  until much later in the adolescent  years. This is particularly tough if you are  a parent who was responsible at an  early age, but you now have a child lagging  behind. It’s hard to imagine that  they’re not just lazy, irresponsible and  unmotivated. Of course, if you start  believing these things about your child,  you will simply get annoyed,  frustrated, angry, and reactive to their laziness—which  will contribute to the  power struggle and to their to their defiance. How can  you avoid doing this?  Read on to find out.

Related:  Trapped in a constant power struggle with your child?

1. Keep a relationship with your kids that is open,  respectful and  positive. Stay on your kids’ team, don’t play against them.  This will  allow you to be most influential with them, which is your most  important  parenting tool. Punishing, preaching, threatening and manipulating  will get you  nowhere and will be detrimental to your relationship and to their  ultimate  motivation. Your feelings of anxiety, frustration and fear are normal  and  understandable. But reacting to your kids out of these emotions will be   ineffective. Remember, your child is not behaving this way on purpose to make   your life miserable or because they are lazy good-for-nothings. When you feel   yourself getting worked up, try saying to yourself, “My child is just not there   yet.” Remember, your job is to help them learn how to be responsible. If you   get negative and make this a moral issue, then your child might become defiant,   reacting to you instead of thinking through things himself.

2. Incorporate the “when you” rule.  One of life’s  lessons is that we get the  goodies after we do the work. When you practice  shooting hoops every day, you  start making more baskets. You get paid after you  work at your job. So start  saying things like, “When you finish  studying you  are welcome to go to Gavin’s house.” Or “When your homework is  completed, we  can discuss watching that movie you wanted to see on Netflix.” Enforce  this  rule and stick to it. If your child does not yet have the ability to plan  and  initiate and persevere, by sticking to this rule, you are helping them learn   how to do what their own brain is not yet equipped to do, which is to create   the structure for him.

Related:  How to use consequences in the most effective way.

3. When you are invited in. If your  child is not studying  and his grades are dropping, you’re invited in whether he  wants you or there or  not. Again, you’re there to help set up a structure that  he is not able to  create for himself. The structure might include scheduled  study times, having  the computer out in a public place in your home, and  saying, “No video games or  TV until after homework is done.” You might decide  that he must spend a certain  amount of hours devoted to study time. During this  time, no electronics or  other distractions are allowed. You might make the rule  that even if he  finishes all his homework, he must complete study time by  reviewing, reading,  or editing. You might make the rule that he devotes an hour-and-a-half  to quiet  time, no electronics, and just doing his work. Understand that it’s  not meant  as punishment; rather, this is helping him develop a good work ethic  and to  focus on his school subjects. Some kids do better listening to music  while they  study, but no other electronics or multi-tasking is recommended.

4. Ask the teacher. If your  child’s grades and work habits  are not up to par, you can set up a plan by  sitting down with him and his  teachers. He might have to check with them to  make sure he has everything  before leaving school, and then check with you  before going back to school to  make sure all his work is in his bag. Once your  child gets better at managing  his time, completing his work and reviewing his  subjects before tests, then  it’s time for you to back off.

5. Identify a study spot. You may  need to sit with your  child while she’s doing her work or at least be nearby to  help her stay on  track. She may need a quiet location away from brothers and  sisters or she may  do better in a room near others. You  can help her experiment. But once you find  what works best, keep her in that  location. You will not do her work for her,  but you may need to review her work  and ask her if a certain paragraph makes  sense to her, for example.

6. Break it down. Decide together whether or not  it will be  helpful to your child for you to help him break down his assignments  into small  pieces and organize on a calendar what he should get done each day.  You can get  him a big wall calendar or a white board. You might also get extra  help from  his teacher or get a tutor for him if that’s in your budget.

7. Be kind but firm. Try your best to be a parent  who is  kind, helpful, consistent and firm versus punitive, over-functioning and   controlling. For every negative interaction with your child, try to create ten   positive ones. Try to put the focus on supporting and encouraging him instead   of worrying and nagging. When you start to believe his grades are a reflection   of you or your parenting and that you are responsible for his outcome, you will   be on his case—and it will be harmful and ineffective.

8. Lack of motivation or anxiety? Recognize  that so much of  your child’s lack of motivation (or what looks like  irresponsibility) might be  his own anxiety or shame about academics and  schoolwork. Most people have  anxiety about doing certain things and avoid them  like the plague. Kids may not  be able to explain all of this to you because it’s  not always on a conscious  level for them. Here’s a typical scenario. Let’s say  your child tells you he  doesn’t have homework when he actually does.  This will stir up your  anxiety. When you react  to it by yelling or criticizing, your child will manage  his anxiety by  distancing from it—and from you—more. While a little anxiety can  motivate, too  much blocks your child’s ability to think and to have access to  the part of the  brain that helps him with motivation. Keep your emotions in  check by  recognizing that it’s your child’s anxiety at play rather than his  laziness.  Your job (and how you will be most helpful to him) is to not react to  his  anxiety or your own.

Related:  Is your family stuck in an anxiety cycle?

Recognize that sometimes your  child’s feelings of shame, inferiority or  anxiety can be misinterpreted as a  lousy attitude, lack of motivation, and  irresponsibility. Often the cover up  for these vulnerable emotions can take the  form of acting out, shutting down, avoidance, and  defiance. Remember that what  is happening now may look very different as your  child matures and develops. In  the meantime, in a positive relationship, lend  him your brain by helping him  with the structure and habits he can’t pull off  on his own. And calm yourself  by understanding the bigger picture of what is  going on now.

9. Teach life balance. Remember to always keep the  big  picture in mind. Rather than go crazy over your child’s grades, help her to   balance her life with friendships, other activities, volunteer work and family   activities. Get involved with her school affairs when you can and take an   interest in her school projects.

10. Don’t futurize. When we see our child seeming  to have  no interest in his life, it’s easy to start fast forwarding into the  future.  When he acts like he doesn’t care about anything except video games and  his  friends, we worry that he won’t be successful or even functional on his  own.  This ramps up our anxiety and our fear. But here’s the truth: none of us  have a  crystal ball or can really see into the future. Focusing on the negative  things  your child is doing will only bring the spotlight on them, and may set  you both  up for a power struggle. Instead, focus on your child’s positive  traits and  help him work on those in the present. Is he outgoing, helpful, or  good with  animals? Focus on all the things that go into a developed, successful  person,  not just academics and grades and help your child develop in social,  creative,  and emotional ways.

Parents are often so worried  about their child falling behind that they end  up in a power struggle with  their kids over it, but nothing gets better. They  go round and round, just  fighting about the grades and the work. But if you as  the parent can calm down  and understand that this is not just a bad attitude  and an unmotivated kid—and  that you can’t force them to be motivated—then you  can actually start meeting  your child where he is and helping where he needs  help. Remember, your goal is  to stop the reactivity and solve the  problem.


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