“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
One of the biggest frustrations parents often face is getting their kids motivated to learn. Whether it’s mastering multiplication, learning a new language, or sticking with the soccer team despite riding the bench most of the season, it can be difficult to get our kids to be enthusiastic about learning new skills. Especially when the going gets tough.
Our children’s reluctance to venture into unfamiliar territory is understandable. Learning new skills can be frustrating, and failure can be discouraging or, worse, embarrassing. Research has shown, however, that parents can help their children more readily embrace challenges and understand the value of persistence without relying on excessive external rewards.
Here are five strategies you can start using today to help your child become a motivated learner:
1 | Learning as an opportunity
Over three decades of research has shown that there is a direct correlation between what a child thinks of her abilities and that child’s willingness to face challenges, according to Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a pioneer in the study of motivation in relation to achievement.
As Dweck’s extensive research with children has found, when children see their abilities as fixed and not subject to improvement, they worry that their intelligence will be questioned whenever they fail or exert too much effort to learn a skill. As a result of this “fixed mindset,” these children view challenges and mistakes as potential sources of “looking dumb,” and lose confidence and motivation when the work stops being easy.
However, children who believe that the harder they work at something, the better they’ll get at it see obstacles as opportunities to add to their skillset, not as potential blows to their self-confidence. Dweck refers to this mindset as the “growth mindset.”
Children with a growth mindset understand that effort is necessary to succeed. They display an increased motivation to persist in the face of a disappointing grade or a difficult task. As Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania concurs, this kind of stick-to-itiveness spurs children to achieve success, in and out of school.
So how can we teach our kids to have a growth mindset? Research shows that children at any level can be taught to adopt a growth mindset. Specifically, parents should emphasize the effort and strategies their child uses to achieve a desired outcome rather than focus on the child’s intelligence or talent.
This emphasis on process gives the child a sense of control, in that she sees that good results often come from increased effort and not necessarily innate ability. This sense of control boosts the child’s confidence to keep working at a problem with the understanding that, if one way of solving the problem didn’t work, then tackling the problem in a different way might.
While encouraging your child to value the process of learning rather than just the outcome itself, Dweck cautions parents to use praise effectively. Parents should be mindful to use words that praise a child’s efforts in accomplishing a desired result (“You studied hard and did great!”) versus words that praise the child’s intelligence (“You got an A because you’re so smart!”).
Dweck provides further examples of how to effectively praise young learners here.
2 | Make learning fun
To help foster motivated learning, parents can turn lessons into fun activities. Add excitement to your child’s learning experience by encouraging him to explore his interests. If your child is interested in music, sign him up to play a musical instrument of his choosing or take him to children’s concerts, many of which are free at parks and community centers.
Music in particular is a great teaching tool because it stirs enthusiasm while sharpening the child’s understanding of mathematics, which has a strong connection to music, according to the American Mathematical Society. Musical concepts such as rhythm, scales, intervals, harmonies, and pitch are all rooted in math.
If your child is interested in history or dinosaurs, take her to a museum or head to your local library to peruse through books on the subject. For a younger learner, use puzzles and board games to make mastering concepts connected to her interests colorful and fun.
To have fun with learning, use external rewards, such as stickers, candy, and money sparingly. The overuse of external rewards can undercut motivation over time by implying to the child that he can choose to do the task only if he wants the reward, not for the inherent value in learning something new.
3 | Respect frustrations and need for downtime
It’s unreasonable to expect children to be motivated all the time. When parents don’t acknowledge a child’s frustration with learning a particular skill, children are more likely to disengage from the learning process.
But exploring your child’s hesitation to do a task can give her the reassurance she needs to keep striving. If you aren’t making progress in talking to your child about her frustrations, seek out a teacher or coach who may have better success.
Likewise, be respectful of your child’s need for downtime. While parents want to give their children every opportunity to learn, this well-intentioned goal has to be balanced with the equally-important goal of letting a child enjoy being a kid, notes child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of “The Overscheduled Child”.
Allowing children to have unstructured downtime to play outdoors or simply hang around the house lets them recharge and process what they learned during the structured part of their day. This boosts creativity as children dream up ways to fill up their time and builds character as they play with – and resolve conflicts with – other children their own age.
4 | Allow your children to fail
Although it seems counterintuitive at first, part of helping children learn not to become discouraged when faced with difficult tasks is to let them fail and learn how to bounce back from that failure. Letting children fail teaches them resilience and how to take responsibility for the natural consequences of their actions.
With that goal in mind, a child is better served when parents resist the urge to rescue him from failure if the source of the failure is the child’s own lack of effort. When a child experiences how poor effort can lead to a poor result, the child is incentivized to refocus his efforts at succeeding. This redirection can bolster the child’s perseverance, self-reliance, and motivation.
In some children, the fear of failure can be especially daunting. Try lessening these children’s fears by explaining that innovators they may admire – from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney to J. K. Rowling – experienced numerous obstacles and failures before succeeding through sustained motivation and perseverance.
5 | Lead by example
One of the most effective ways parents can teach their children to embrace learning is to immerse them in a household where the parents are enthusiastic about learning as well. Show your child your commitment to learning by reading avidly, taking a class, or engaging enthusiastically in a hobby of your interest.
Not only will your child see that working hard doesn’t have to be a solitary undertaking, but she will witness firsthand the personal satisfaction that comes from relishing a challenge.