Children, like adults, generally want to succeed in life and would like to have pride in their work. Unfortunately, negative reinforcements, broken reward systems, and even brain chemistry can get in the way. Here are some ways to fix this.
An interesting study, described on ScienceDaily, found that calling overweight girls “fat” led to more, not less, weight gain. Turns out, when children have a motivation problem, often the problem is that they do not see themselves as “worth” all the work needed to improve their lives. The exact same problem often prevents students from doing well in school. Far too many parents, and even some teachers, make general criticisms of children when they perform poorly at school, saying things like “you don’t care,” “you’re bad at this subject,” etc. This has the opposite of the intended effect, making children dislike themselves and give up altogether. Instead, adults should focus specifically on individual behaviors, and how those behaviors can lead to positive rewards. For example, an adult canexplain how studying for just 15 minutes a night can lead to less stress the night before a test, or how a good grade in math can lead to interesting careers.
There are a huge number of reasons that your child might have trouble being motivated in school. These can range from learning disabilities and mood disorders to bullying or a toxic school environment. Even if something doesn’t seem hard to you, it’s important to acknowledge that it may seem very hard from your child’s perspective.
3. Set achievable goals.
Probably no sentence shows a dysfunctional motivating strategy more than when a child says “nothing I do is good enough.” If your child has serious problems with motivation, any goal is a good goal. If your child won’t, or can’t, focus on homework for an hour a night, be willing to offer praise or a reward if he or she can manage 15 minutes a night. Then, come up with a slightly better reward for a half hour, and so on. The process of setting any goal, working towards the goal, and achieving the goal changes affects not only self-esteem, but also brain chemistry. Achieving small goals regularly trains the brain to release dopamine, the “pleasure” chemical, in anticipation of meeting goals. This pre-achievement dopamine fix is a major feature that sets mentally typical children apart from those with depression and ADD. Although achievable rewards will not fix these issues by themselves, they will lessen the symptoms and lead to higher achievement in school.
4. Play by the rules you set.
Rewards need to be predictable. If you tell your child that you will be proud if they get a B+, then be proud when they get a B+. Don’t immediately start asking why they didn’t get an A. Don’t be upset if their grade goes back to a B- (negative reinforcement wasn’t part of the deal). If kids learn to see success as just something that leads to more pressure and more failures, they will only learn to avoid success.