How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork
Mind Tools

How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork

I’m often asked, “How do you get your kids to do schoolwork?”  I usually opt for a brief, “My kids want to do it.”   This is both true and not true.   Yes, my kids do schoolwork pretty willingly most of the time.  And no, they were not born this way.   I spent countless hours planning, researching and testing different strategies before we settled on a sensible system.  It’s been working for us with relatively little stress for over a year, and today I’m sharing some things I learned along the way.


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.


Here are five elements that help me motivate my kids to do schoolwork:


Put them in Charge

When I was growing up I was the sole washer of all the family dishes.   It took me over an hour each day to wash all the dishes and I hated every minute of it.  I remember sitting in my room trying to work up the motivation to start, then I would get up with determination and start walking briskly towards the kitchen.  If, on the way there, I ran into my mom and she said, “Eva, wash the dishes!”  Without missing a beat I would turn on my heels and go back to my room.  I would wash the dishes because I made a decision to do so, but I will be damned if I would do it because she told me to do it.  Of course, I would still need to wash the dishes, but I waited until everyone was asleep, so there would be absolutely no confusion that it was my decision when to wash them.


When I became a parent responsible for educating my own children, the first thing I wanted to do was put them in charge of their schoolwork.  I didn’t want them “to do school” because I told them to, or for any number of reasons that came outside of their control.  I wanted them to do their work because they made the decision to do it.  Of course, kids naturally want to learn and explore.  If they didn’t need to learn multiplication tables and advanced reading, the job of homeschooling parents and teachers would be very easy.  In real life, however, there are personal preferences towards certain subjects, as well as peak times and downtimes.  That’s why a good system is essential to help move things along. 


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.

So over a year ago I came up with a Weekly Chart.  I haven’t yet seen anyone use this system, so I might have invented it.  We have all the classes and chores listed for every day of the week, Monday through Sunday.  Yes, that’s right, a Seven-Day-School.  I wanted learning to be a lifestyle, not a function of calendar.  Every day we learn.    


There are no times listed on our chart and kids are in charge of deciding when they want the work to be done and what kind of work.  For example, Math might mean an online class, a worksheet or two from different programs we have at home, or a Waldorf-style lesson (with me as the teacher).  The top two lines are for extracurricular activities that are scheduled in advance and are there as a reminder.  Chores, putting away toys and Mind training (is a daily curriculum I put together for my kids) are a must every day.  Everything else on a chart (math, English, science, art, Spanish) is a matter of choice.  


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.

When the kids are done with a subject or a chore on their list, they cross it out or circle it.  We evaluate the progress on Sunday.  Sunday is our big Family Day.  The child who fell behind is not allowed to participate in Family activities and needs to stay in his or her room upstairs.  To be honest in over a year, it hasn’t happened yet.  My kids love Family Day more than anything in the world.  All I have to do throughout the week is to remind them, “Remember no Family Day, if you don’t finish everything!”  And then I bite my tongue and walk away.  No more words.  No lectures.  No directions.  I want them to feel that it’s their choice. 


But is it an illusion of choice when the price of not doing schoolwork is the loss of a much valued prize?  I don’t think so, as long as you explain your philosophy.   You might choose: in our family, we play after the work is done.  That’s how the real world works.  You can’t go to theater until you earn a paycheck to pay for your tickets.  Not participating in a Family Day is the consequence of a string of poor choices (seven days a week offers them seven opportunities to get it right).


Give them Tools

Our job as parents is to set our kids up for success.  We have to teach them how to self-motivate and get things done.  One of the things I discovered is that most kids (and some adults) simply don’t know how to start.  And when they do, they often don’t know how to finish what they started.    


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.

Most activities in life require process.  So help kids break up tasks into tiny steps and make sure they have everything they need to finish each step.  For school kids it can be: open backpack, find homework assignments, put them on the table, pick one subject … For us as a homeschooling family it means that all the necessary tools (books, workbooks, pencils, pencil sharpeners, dictionaries,…) are easily accessible and kept organized in the kitchen.  Why in the kitchen?  Because the kitchen is where we spend most of our day and by not having to go to a schoolroom, we eliminate a whole step from our process.  All kids have to do – when inspiration strikes – is go to their shelf and pick up the right resources.


Once you perfect the system for getting started, train kids to finish what they start.  One thing I like to say is, “Time is limited.  Don’t ever give a task more than it deserves.”  I believe that a task will take as much time as you give it.  Before the kids, it took me over an hour to clean the kitchen after dinner.  Now that I have kids I can do the same job in 20 minutes and there is actually much more work to be done with three little ones.  It takes less time because I have less time to do it. 


The same principle applies to schoolwork.  It can take a kid an hour to do one worksheet, if he spends half the time looking out of the window and wishing himself to be somewhere else.  Or he can put everything on hold until this one thing is done.  To help kids stay focused: shut out the distractions, break the long task into smaller steps, and let them get a shiny star sticker for each line, problem or page they finish, shrug off mistakes (done is better than perfect), and have a system in place for tough assignments.   


I put my kids in the right mindset by dropping little encouragements:

  • I like all the effort you put into your schoolwork.
  • Your choices are powerful. 
  • You can learn from your mistakes.
  • When you are learning, you are growing. 


I also like to stress the process over outcome whenever possible because on a large scale of things it’s not about getting to the end of the assignment but about expanding the mind, making connections, experimenting, and understanding that goals can be achieved.  However, sometimes kids need to work through boredom and that’s when it is helpful to discuss the objective … which brings me to the next element. 


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.


Give them the reason

Why should kids choose to do schoolwork when there are so many games still unplayed?  It may seem obvious to you.  You might say knowledge creates opportunities in life or you might say it will help them get into a good college.  Kids couldn’t care less when they are 8 what college they will get in.  They don’t even want to go to college right now, they just want to live with mommy and daddy forever.


What I tell my kids is that they need school for mental training.  Schoolwork teaches accuracy and logic.  It teaches how to analyze, clarify, and problem solve.  It teaches patience and the importance of honest work.  And of course, it teaches math and reading skills that are essential for independent life in modern society. 


Learning is also about making connections.  Every new bit you learn needs to be connected to something you already know.  The more that you know, the easier it is to acquire more knowledge.  So what is a parent to do?  Make sure to talk about knowledge and the power of learning. Make it a regular part of your dinner conversations.  I also like to point out relevancy of school to their daily life.  One needs to understand numbers and measurement to follow a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  One needs to know how to read and understand what an airplane ticket says, so that the family can get to a vacation destination.    


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.


Fine Tuning

Even the best oiled machine in the world needs to be inspected and maintained.  The same applies to everything.  Are kids still interested and motivated by the system you put in place?  Is it still working?  Are you noticing some signs of frustration because maybe the program became too difficult or because their priorities changed? 


If you are a homeschooling parent, you can easily adjust what you do.  I found that at different points of our year the kids might decide to switch programs.  They might be going strong on Hooked on Phonics but suddenly become bored and unmotivated.  That’s when I might suggest switching to Jolly Phonics and find a renewed enthusiasm.   If your kids go to school it might not be as easy, but look for a way to spark a new interest.


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.

The signs I keep an eye for are:

  • Are they trying to put off doing schoolwork?
  • Is it suddenly taking longer to tackle the same task?
  • Are they fidgeting a lot or talking more than usual?
  • Are they making comments like, “School is boring/stupid/lame”?
  • Is there sudden resistance to schoolwork?
  • Are they trying to get away with doing as little as possible?


Any of the above is a sign that something has to be changed.  For example, in the middle of this month I realized that my 3-rd grader – who is usually an over-achiever – started to turn away from mathematics yawning through explanations and rushing through practice questions.  After a little talk we decided to try to switch from a more advanced concept-oriented math program to a very gentle, hands-on Math by Hand (Waldorf).  It meant dramatically more work for me because Waldorf materials require 100% parental involvement.  But it seems to make my son much happier and learning meaningful again. Once that happens, he is motivated to do his schoolwork again.  


Give Them A Loving Environment

I strive to make schoolwork fun and exciting 90% of the time.  And then there is the other 10% of the time when I just need them to do their work.  I believe that kids are internally motivated to please their parents as long as they think that parents are on their side.  Did you notice that catch at the end?  Most parents know that they love their kids and they are on their side, however, if you ask kids, they often do not know that to be true.  With all the nagging, behavior modification comments, and reminders, it’s easy to forget how much negative information we unload on our kids every day. 


What I find most helpful is to remember how I deliver information.  Am I lecturing or using a good opportunity (like a family meeting) to establish clear expectations.  Am I nagging or communicating?  Am I showing love and acceptance even when I disagree?  


How to motivate kids to do their schoolwork.  Five elements: put them in charge, give them tools, give them the reason, fine tuning, and a loving environment.


Every family is different and what works wonders for us might not work for you.  Putting kids in charge of their education and giving them the tools to be successful motivates my kids.  This system of checks ensures that everything is staying on track and that changes can be implemented before things go wrong.  Giving kids a higher reason and creating a loving environment goes a long way in establishing the right mindset. 


Question:  Do you have tips for motivating kids to do their schoolwork? 

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