Keeping kids motivated to learnWritten by Kathy Koch
What's inside this article
Not long ago, a couple asked me to meet with their son who was having trouble finding direction for his future. He’d become uninterested in his studies – it was difficult for him to recognize how his school projects and assignments could matter to him in the future.
In this young man’s case, I felt that technology had played a role in his troubles, perhaps damaging his initiative by reinforcing a belief that everything in life should be quick and easy. But as we talked, I observed that technology had also connected him to the larger world and its problems. When I asked him what issues he was interested in, he lit up and began talking excitedly about what problems he’d love to tackle. Together we brainstormed some specific ways that his courses and assignments were equipping him to face these challenges. By being able to recognize the value in his learning, he found an effective motivation and did much better in school.
Engaged, not apathetic
Many teens and young adults struggle with connecting the present to their future. This prevents them from persevering, from knowing how to navigate around life’s roadblocks. But like this young man who was able to connect his schoolwork to the problems he was interested in tackling, we can help our young people discover a vision for their future. When they find this vision, they’ll be more willing to strive for success. They’ll be engaged rather than apathetic.
This all starts with helping kids learn two powerful beliefs that form their view about who they are and how their future can look. What are those essential beliefs? Kids must believe: 1) that they have value, and 2) that growth and learning are valuable.
Their value affects their view of the future
Children who know they have value – who think of themselves positively in the present – are better equipped to conceive of a positive future. And through this process, they understand the real-world things that can help them create this future. That includes a near future of next month and a more distant future of meaningful work and service.
Ensuring your children believe they have value is one of the most important things you’ll ever do. This affects how motivated they’ll be and the direction of their motivation. They won’t feel the need to strive for external things to create value. They know they already have value because a loving God created them and sent his son to save them from sin – and because you tell them they’re valuable and important to you.
If children don’t believe in themselves, they also start to believe they don’t need to be good at anything. Bad grades are fine. It's who I am. Getting into trouble all the time won’t phase them. It's who I am. They may lose hope and a vision for what they can do in life. They are gradually captured by the false belief that they won’t ever amount to anything.
What conversations do you need to have with your children about their value? What traits do you notice and nurture? Do you need to change the way you relate to them? Children need to understand they’re important. If they don’t believe this, nothing much matters.
The value of learning
After understanding they have value, kids need to believe in the merit of growth and learning. To inspire this belief, wise parents model their own love for learning and Truth. They also identify lessons, hobbies and activities that will interest their children and develop their love of learning. Valuable content and interesting material, in turn, drive a child’s competence and motivation, which then circles back to reinforce the belief that learning matters. Paying attention to your children’s learning and development pays great dividends.
Know your kids and their passions
Recognize how your kids’ strengths and interests are constantly developing and changing. What is important to them and worth persevering through? What dreams and goals do they have for the future? How will learning new skills and knowledge be a part of those goals?
Don’t let your kids get to high school before they can connect their studies with their personal passions. Start early by helping your children connect schoolwork to their individual interests. When your kids have to write reports or do projects, help them choose topics of interest to them so they’ll be far more motivated for that assignment. This helps to continue fueling competence in schoolwork and presents an ongoing motivation to learn new things, even if some of the material isn’t quite as interesting. Learning is not just important in school. Learning also matters in jobs, hobbies, friendships and family relationships. The belief in life-long learning – that growth and improvement are always possible – is absolutely critical for young people to develop a vision for their future. Make sure to model this.
Creating a roadmap for the future
Have frequent conversations with your children about how you each view the future. If you’ve talked pessimistically about the future, apologize. Likewise, if your kids have expressed negative views, try to determine the source of the negativity and talk about what’s real and accurate.
Through many ongoing conversations, craft vision statements together for life changes and milestones. Help your children realize that their future can be bright when they know who they are and they apply themselves. Character always matters.
Share your vision with children’s teachers, pastors and counsellors. Getting them on the same page is always important. This is especially valuable when children have special needs. Sharing gives children a great jumpstart on each new season of their lives.
Friends of mine write a vision statement for their son each year. Their confidence in him and his future encourages me and makes it more likely he will grow up believing in himself and his future.
Here is one of their vision statements for their precious son with Down syndrome:
Our son is more like his peers than he is different. So he will learn to do everything his typical peers can do; it just might take a bit longer. Our goal for him this year is to become acclimated with the learning environment and to grow to love it. We want him to work on developing relationships with his peers and to learn appropriate behaviours for social settings. Our long-term goals for our son are for him to be happy and to learn to be an independent adult who contributes to the community in which he lives.
There are many benefits when parents believe in their children’s future and advocate for it with others.
Most young people today are multitalented, multi-passionate and multi-interested. So old questions like “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and “What do you want to major in at college?” are not effective ways to motivate them toward the future. Try these questions instead:
What problems do you want to help solve?
With today’s ever-present media and technology, children are more exposed to the world’s brokenness and are often interested in solving problems. Knowing what they care about can help you create a vision for their future. You’ll be able to implement activities and lessons that nurture the belief that learning matters. So seeing how problem-solving can leave the world a better place deepens children’s understanding of their own value and gives them hope for their future.
Who would you like to serve?
People matter to children, so asking about serving specific people groups can elicit meaningful responses to help you plug in to their interests and concerns. This makes learning more personally relevant so children are more likely to be teachable and engaged.
What makes you sad? What brings you joy?
Getting children to talk about their heart’s responses to difficult situations can help you show them how they can use their skills to make a difference. In a similar way, knowing causes of joy can help children determine how they want to invest themselves. So choosing tasks and causes they care about motivates them even when learning is challenging.
How do you want to live?
I recently met a young man who was interested in serving others. He said he didn’t value material things. He’d already decided to travel and serve where he could when he was young, not being tied down to family or possessions. At the same time, I talked with someone else who had placed a high value on his own education because of its relevance to how he wants to leave the world a better place. Both were honourable goals that will inform current and future decision making. Knowing how your children answer this question will influence how you guide them.
Knowing your children – their values, confidence level, strengths, interests and goals – helps you more effectively fuel their motivation. You are affecting their future!
Hear more from Kathy Koch on the connection between self-esteem and motivation in this broadcast:
Kathy Koch, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Celebrate Kids, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping parents and educators understand and meet the needs of today’s children, and a co-founder of Ignite the Family: A Movement of Awakened Parents. She is also the author of several books including Start With the Heart and 8 Great Smarts. Dr. Koch earned her Ph.D. in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University. She resides in Ft. Worth, TX.
© 2019 Dr. Kathy Koch. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published under the title A Bright Future.
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