“You don’t know how hard it is to be a six-year-old!”
This is a line apparently generated by my husband when he was six (as indicated by the statement) and is often quoted by in-laws to elicit a laugh about kids saying the darndest things.
And it is funny, but there’s also truth to it.
Because although we adults think we know so much because we’ve been there and done that, the reality is that we forget what it’s like to be a kid, specifically the struggles of figuring things out for the first time in life.
When my oldest began learning to read, she was easily frustrated when she had trouble sounding out big words, which meant that she regularly gave up.
This was quite the hair-pulling/lip-biting/nail-chewing experience for me, because as I constantly told her, the only way to improve her ability and to make reading easier was to practice.
This didn’t go over so well.
Luckily, her teacher had more patience than I did, so she’s on the road to embracing literature. Yay, happy ending.
But this made me think about future academic (and other) struggles that she’ll inevitably encounter as she gets older, and how I can help her work through them – and not pull out so much hair that I’m bald by the time she graduates high school!
Figure Out the Core Issue
Rather than assuming your child’s being stubborn or lazy, the key to increasing his motivation for schoolwork could be to find out if he or she is experiencing problems at a deeper level.
This article from Child Mind Institute quotes psychologist Dr. Rachel Busman who says,
“A child who’s learning to read, for instance, may not be ‘motivated’ because it’s new for him and it’s not the easiest thing.”
Another factor that might contribute to a kid’s difficulty with school work might be social pressures. The Child Mind Institute article references an interview with neuropsychologist Laura Fuhrman that addresses this issue. The article’s author writes,
“Dr. Fuhrman notes that starting in middle school, kids’ attitudes become subject to a host of new social interactions and pressures. Unfortunately, kids who do well in school sometimes encounter social isolation, and to avoid being labeled as a geek or a nerd they may withdraw from academics.”
Finally, it could be that your child has a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.”
People who have fixed mindsets believe they have a “fixed” amount of intelligence and/or talent that can’t be increased. Those with a growth mindset believe learning and intelligence are not static traits but can instead be enhanced through effort.
Having a fixed mindset can prompt children to give up when work becomes challenging because they believe they “just aren’t smart,” or “just aren’t good at that,” and they think they can’t change those circumstances.
You can address this issue by explaining to your kids that putting in the work and not giving up are the best ways to succeed and that they should measure their success by progress, not perfection.
Determine What Motivates Their Personality Type
Beyond finding out if there’s a deeper issue contributing to your child’s learning slump, another way to help her break free of the doldrums is to determine what methods tactics have previously convinced them to try new things.
In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin tackles the challenge of changing habits, an area closely related to overcoming learning curves and acquiring new skill sets.
Brown emphasizes that in order to enact new habits, it helps to know your “Tendency” because different motivations work for people’s personalities.
The way she defines “Tendency” is related to how people respond to expectations.
Rubin groups Tendency into four basic categories:
Upholders: Respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
Upholders love meeting expectations, so an effective way to motivate your upholder child could be to ask him or her to set a deadline (and possibly a small reward) for herself.
As a rule, I don’t believe giving rewards for behavior all of the time is a good strategy because it could decrease a child’s intrinsic motivation; however, I think the true reward for upholders isn’t so much the reward itself as it is achieving the goal (which is inherently intrinsically motivated).
In fact, because they love reaching goals so much, upholders could also be motivated to overcome learning curves if you frame them as small achievable steps. That way, your child can get satisfaction each time she completes a “goal” and be excited to continue until she finishes the project.
Questioners: Question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.
For Questioners, one tact might be to explain the reasons that acquiring the new skills will be beneficial to them in the long run. If you can convince them that overcoming an initially difficult obstacle is a worthy long-term goal, that might spark enough energy to get them over the learning hump.
Obligers: Respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
If your child’s an obliger, you could try talking to him about your (and maybe his teacher’s) belief and expectation that he’s very capable of overcoming this challenge.
This has the added benefit of promoting a positive “Pygmalion Effect,” giving your child the motivation to rise to good expectations while simultaneously conveying your strong faith in him.
Rebels: Resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.
This is the trickiest type to persuade, since what influences their behavior seems to be flaunting expectations and incentives.
However, rebels do always seem to be up for a challenge, so one idea I had for motivating kids with this tendency would be to set up a competition where you (the parent) take on a new challenge that you’ve been meaning to conquer (we all have them) and have a “race” with your child to see who completes the challenge first.
Looking at your child’s past responses to expectations will give you a good idea of which Tendency they have, which will, in turn, help you figure out what tact will best help them conquer their learning curves.
Show You Care
Showing your kids that you’re interested in the important things in their life, including their school work, is yet another way to exemplify your love for them.
Another Child Mind Institute article called, “How to Help Your Child Get Motivated in School” points out that,
“By demonstrating your interest in your child’s school life, you’re showing her school can be exciting and interesting. This is especially effective with young kids who tend to be excited about whatever you’re excited about. Teenagers can bristle if they feel you are asking too many questions, so make sure you are sharing the details of your day, too.”
As long as you convey to your child that you are interested in helping her – as opposed to only being interested in how well she does academically – this potentially challenging time could be an opportunity to bond rather than butt heads.
This is especially true if we parents can just take deep breaths and try to remember that we too struggled with learning curves. Once we realize this, it becomes much easier to offer our kids sympathy instead of frustration, which is ultimately what will help them get past these life obstacles.