6 Fundamental Things That Keep Kids Motivated

by Sanya Pelini December 14, 2023

girl holding book on her head

One of the greatest challenges parents and teachers face is keeping kids motivated: motivated to take on tasks, to keep going when things get tough, to try again. Motivation has received much attention in educational and child development research for several reasons: a child lacking motivation is a poor learner, lacks curiosity and creativity, and has poorer education and social outcomes.

6 Things Science Can Teach You About Keeping Your Child Motivated

1 | Make it relevant.

There is evidence to suggest that a child is more motivated when he understands how an activity is personally relevant to him. Your child is thus more likely to be motivated if the proposed activity is in line with his interests. For instance, if your child likes comics and you would like him to improve his reading skills or grammar, propose comics or let him choose the comics to read. Providing reasons for doing a particular task has also been found to increase interest. Explaining to your child why a particular activity is worthwhile can also help increase his motivation.

2 | Provide more autonomy.

Contemporary pedagogies for teaching and learning are driven by the belief that children are more motivated when they are active participants in the learning process. Some pedagogies such as the Montessori program encourage children to freely choose their activities

Giving your child a greater role in the decision-making process can help motivate her. Even young children can benefit from structured decision-making (would you like the green dress or the red one? Pasta or rice?). Asking older children to organize their activities by themselves (for example, letting your daughter decide the order in which she’ll do her homework, take her shower, have a snack, watch TV, etc.) can help motivate them.

A word of caution though: Provide a decision-making structure, especially when dealing with young kids. For example, when you let your daughter decide how she’ll carry out her activities, tell her she can choose any order she likes so long as TV comes last. It’s also important to be as specific as possible to avoid conflict: “watch TV for 30 minutes” is a better option than just “watch TV”.

3 | Create positive environments.

Children whose teachers are available, are genuinely concerned about them and treat them with respect have been found to be highly motivated learners. Being available, warm and receptive improves parent-child relationships and makes it easier for your children to talk about what’s troubling them or holding them back. There is evidence that children raised within families where negotiation is common have better education, social and psychological outcomes, and are also less likely to turn to drug use.

A few tips to make negotiation work:

  • Identify your non-negotiables. It’s always easier to negotiate when you know what you’re willing to be flexible on.
  • Prepare like a pro. To get the best results out of a negotiation, prepare. Go over all the options. Explore any underlying issues.
  • Focus on solutions.
  • Ask questions and listen.
  • Timing matters. Calm down, then negotiate.

4 | Hold high expectations

Lady Bird Johnson once said that children are likely to live up to what you believe of them. Research has proven her right. Holding high expectations matters. High expectations influence academic success, reduce dropouts, and have been associated with future success. One study found that even in cases where teacher expectations were low, kids still demonstrated great academic competency and performance when their mothers’ expectations were high.
A few things to keep in mind when setting expectations:
  • Get rid of low expectations.
  • Focus on the effort.
  • Raise your expectations gradually.

5 | Positive reinforcement is a more effective motivator than negative reinforcement

There are conflicting views on the use of rewards in academic settings. While some educators suggest that using rewards can reduce intrinsic motivation, others assert that rewards can help motivate some students. There is evidence, though, that rewarding positive behavior can reinforce it, and that positive reinforcement, if used appropriately, can be highly effective.
Here are a few tips to make positive reinforcement more effective:
  • Clearly define the behavior you’re trying to reinforce (for example share your toys with your sister, play by yourself, set the table without being asked, etc.). It’s easier to succeed if you focus on one or two specific behaviors, then move on to others once those are mastered.
  • Don’t bribe. Telling your kid “you can have a cookie if you stay in bed the whole night” is not the same thing as telling him “you can have a cookie if you go back to bed”. Notice the difference?
  • Use rewards sparingly.
  • It is more effective to reinforce immediately after the specific behavior.

6 | Help your child manage her stress levels.

Stress is a serious motivation killer. Fear of failure can lead to anxiety, low resilience and learned helplessness which may all have a negative impact on your child.
You can help her manage her stress levels by:
  • Helping her identify when she’s stressed (triggers)
  • Helping her identify ways in which she can calm herself down when stressed
  • Talking, asking questions, and listening. Children can be stressed when they don’t know what they’re expected to do. Sometimes, asking your child if she knows what’s expected or making it a habit of explaining what's expected can considerably reduce stress.
  • Setting realistic expectations. Tasks should be challenging but achievable.
  • Focusing on what your child can do rather than what other kids her age can do
  • Helping your child view failure as a learning moment. For instance, rather than focus on the failure, ask your child what she’ll do differently next time.
  • Helping your child view herself as a successful person.

Sanya Pelini


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