Tips for Motivating Kids in School

[Ed. note: This is one in a series of guest blogs by our Kartini School administrator, Mary Gunesch. With schools returning to at least partial in-person instruction we thought it a good time to focus on this subject.]

At Kartini Clinic for Children and Families we take the second part of our title, “for Children and Families,” seriously.  We treat children suffering from a wide range of eating disorders – from anorexia nervosa to high body weight – and in this work we know that the family (whatever that may be: Traditional, nontraditional, foster family, or something else) plays a key role in recovery.  The founding doctor of the clinic, Dr. Julie O’Toole, with 25 years of experience says, “Getting support from the family is critical to success.”

In our current situation, with schools either closed or limited to partial in-person instruction for the rest of another academic year, the same thing could be said about education.

Schools are working hard to provide learning materials. Many activities are accessible online; other resources are available on paper. There’s no shortage of what to learn.

But kids need more than the “what” of learning right now.  They need the “why.” 

Many children and teens rely on their relationships with teachers and friends to get them out of bed and headed to school every morning.  Now, “off to school” means 10 steps to the folding table recently set up as a temporary desk at home.

What can families do to give kids the motivation to learn in this topsy-turvy time? Here are some tips:

1. Do schoolwork with your child.  Whether your child is 6, 12, or 20, you can learn together. Your first grader’s work is cute – read the assigned book with them and ask them to act out their favorite character. Your seventh grader’s work may have you re-learning things you’ve forgotten (like phases of the moon); after they finish the unit, let them refresh your memory, and be sure to show genuine interest. Your 20-year-old’s college work may be something you never learned, but have them explain it to you; the ability to summarize is a fabulous way to understand better what they are learning.

2. This unprecedented time is an opportunity to focus on the content of what your kids are learning rather than how they are doing. Learning management systems adopted by schools in recent years, like ParentVUE and Schoology, tell parents how their kids are doing (they got a 78% on the test, for example) but they don’t tell parents about what kids are learning.

3. As it was with Goldilocks, the learning level needs to be “just right,” i.e., not too hard and not too easy. If the work is just ahead of their current level of proficiency, a little bit ahead of where they are, that is best. If the work provided by school is definitely too hard, communicate with your school. Ask about alternatives. (“My child still doesn’t understand how to add fractions with common denominators yet. Can we work on that before we do the problems with unlike denominators?”) A good teacher will work with you and be thrilled that you noticed. On the other hand, if the work is too easy, that’s boring for kids. Again, ask about something different. If fractions are easy for your child, maybe they can triple a recipe or change the scale of the directions to build a birdhouse.

4. Talk with your kids about what they will get when they complete the learning goal. Some children may need something material to aim for, like a new bike helmet they’ve been wanting.  Other kids will be happiest to get your time. Tell them that when they complete the assignment, you will play a game with them.

5. Speaking of games, there are many great ones for learning: Scrabble, Catan, Code Names, and many others. You can also modify a game to make it an educational game: At Kartini School we play Scattergories revised to have categories like: U.S. Presidents, State Capitals, and famous authors and artists.

6. Foster a growth mindset.  From the work of Carol Dweck, we know that kids do better when they think that effort is more important than innate ability. Try not to let your child believe they don’t have what it takes to do something.  There are many stories of hard work winning out over innate ability (e.g. the story of Rudy). Try to help your child use phrases like “I’m almost there” or “I’m getting it.”

7. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. One school district recently posted a notice that they had been inundated with offers from people who wanted to volunteer. Reach out.

At Kartini Clinic we have a school, Kartini School, where we support students for weeks and sometimes months while they are out of their regular schools for medical treatment. We help kids understand concepts and achieve learning goals. What parents are doing now is the same: supporting kids who can’t be in their regular classrooms. This is challenging for sure, but the rewards are great. So tally-ho, temporary teachers, and remember to model a CAN DO attitude for your children and teens.