Written by: Miranda Dekker, LCSW
It’s that time! Time to send our kids back to school!
All kidding aside, sending a child back to school can be a bittersweet time for parents or caregivers. The summer time came with no homework and a less hectic extracurricular activity schedule, vacations, more time outside, and no homework, and no homework (oops! I said that already! Can you tell how much homework stresses me out?!?)
Gathering back to school supplies, packing their lunches, and waving goodbye as their bus pulls away, can all be overwhelming for child and parent, alike. However, at the end of the day, parents are the ones who will lose sleep and stress over their child not succeeding in school.
Many parents who struggled in school believe their child will likewise struggle with academics. However, it is important to know that every child is different, and motivation for school and academic rigor are not always passed down genetically. On the contrary, children’s creativity and knowledge can also be learned behavior from their environment – it’s that whole nature vs. nurture argument all over again!
Executive Functioning Skills, Learning Strengths & Weaknesses
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, completes 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, skills” because the front part of their brain is more developed (aka frontal lobe). This plays a significant role in school achievement. It helps the regulation of emotions, attention span, perseverance, and flexibility. For many kids, however, their executive functioning skills often do not develop until much later in the adolescent years. And this is completely normal! This just means your child needs to build upon these functions with your help and positive reinforcement
On the other hand, for some children, school work may be a challenge due to a learning issue, or an emotional, or attention problem which can cause children to disengage academically. As a parent or caregiver, you may be able to pick up on these challenges by observing your child during homework time, unstructured play, or when completing a household task. If you do find your child to be struggling academically due to one of these above issues it is recommended to contact a healthcare professional who specializes in diagnosing these issues in children and adolescents.
But not all kids who are under performing in school have a diagnosable problem. And there are a number of things parents can do to help motivate kids to try harder.
As a parent, your presence in the academic life of your child is crucial to her commitment to work. Do homework with him and let him know that you’re available to answer questions. Get in the habit of asking her about what she learned in school, and generally engage her academically. By demonstrating your interest in your child’s school life, you’re showing her school can be exciting and interesting. T
his is especially effective with young kids who tend to be excited about whatever you’re excited about. Show enthusiasm for your child's interests and encourage her to explore subjects that fascinate her. If she's a horse nut, offer her stories about riding or challenge her to write a story about horses.
Teenagers can shut down if they feel you are asking too many questions, so make sure you are sharing the details of your day too. A conversation is always better than an interrogation.
Likewise, it’s important to stay involved but give older kids a little more space. If you’re on top of your son all the time about homework, he may develop resistance and be less motivated to work.
Reward effort Rather than Outcome
The message you want to send is that you respect and value hard work. Praising kids for following through when things get difficult, for making a sustained effort, for trying things they’re not sure they can do successfully, can all help teach them the pleasure of pushing themselves. Do this rather than praising for good grades. Instead, ask about what he's learning, not his grades or test scores. Ask her to teach you what she learned in school today. Focus on his strengths, and encourage him to develop his talents. Don’t forget, even if he didn't ace the math test, he may have written a good poem in English class or improved his spelling score. Highlight their skills and completion of tasks rather than focusing solely on how well they did.
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. Another old age discussion of internal vs. external motivation. We hope our children are intrinsically motivated to do their best in school, but not all children are motivated that way.
You may need to rely on good ol’ extrinsic rewards to get your child motivated. The hope is that when your child realizes how good it feels to work hard and receive the pay off, the external rewards will be less motivating than that internal satisfaction and pride. So, it’s okay if you start with rewards and incentives.
Many parents are nervous about rewarding kids for good work, and it’s true that tangible rewards can turn into a slippery slope. As a parent, utilizing extrinsic motivation will eventually be internalized by your child. For example, children respond well to social reinforcements like praise, hugs, and high fives. For children, these reinforcements are comforting and feel good, therefore they are more inclined to achieve more. Use rewarding activities which may have occurred either way, but placing them after a set amount of time doing homework or studying will help form positive structure and expectation for your child.
Be Firm Yet Flexible
Try your best to be a parent who is kind, helpful, consistent and firm versus punitive, over-rewarding 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. This is a crucial time for parents to seek help and support when needed so to not project your frustration onto the child. When you start to believe his grades are a reflection of you or your parenting, you will be on his case—and it will be harmful and ineffective.
Break it down
Talk to your child about breaking down assignments into small portions and organize work in an order that works best for them.
Create a calendar together and mark down what he or she will work on for the day. Have your child get creative with this calendar and often reflect back on how much progress they have made.
Help your child to organize school papers and assignments so he feels in control of his work. Once your child starts to see how being organized helps better prepare him for school, he will start to organize on his own.
Breaking work up into smaller chunks and using small breaks as rewards will also be helpful. Build upon their sense of responsibility by allowing her to choose extracurricular activities, assigning them chores, and asking their input on family decisions.
Don’t forget that during these younger years children need structure and a dedicated quiet work area. Try your best to give your child quiet time when they are working and encourage them to let you know when they have completed a task and give them praise!
Understanding How Young Children Learn by Wendy L. Ostroff
How to help your child get motivated in school by Danielle Cohen
Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles