Dr. Mary Ann Smialek
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Roadblocks to Motivation

Motivation is the key to school success. It is the "why" of learning, the incentive and inducement to move your child to action. Motivation is often defined as the drive that energizes children’s behavior toward a goal. A child’s incentive comes from two different sources: from within the student (intrinsic) or from the outside (extrinsic). The most common problems facing parents during homework sessions and teachers in class work is a lack of this incentive and inducement to effectively and efficiently perform school related tasks.

Motivation is a general term referring to goal seeking or need satisfying behavior. The level or strength of motivation is judged by observing children’s attending and persisting behaviors. Student motivation must be taken into the account as one attempts to make learning and instruction proceed smoothly. A practical question that must be considered in helping students achieve at learning outcomes are: How can a child’s attention be gained and focused on learning? Usually the level of motivation is measured by the teacher’s and parent’s observation and rating of your child’s typical behaviors concerning his schoolwork. There are no good paper and pencil tests for this purpose. Evaluation of work samples are useful to infer how well the student attends and persists based on how well they accomplish school related tasks. Many children seek external reinforcement to motivate their behaviors (e.g. parent approval, good grades or rewards). Extrinsic motivation often leads to developing intrinsic motivation in your children. Children’s motivation often varies depending on the people involved, the setting, what the task is and of course, what it involves. The key to developing your children’s motivation is to find out what motivates them.

Many things can interfere and lessen a student’s motivation. The biggest challenges that children have to overcome are:

  • fear of failure
    No one likes to make mistakes. Some children are terrified of giving the wrong answer. They don’t want to look foolish in front of their teachers, peers, older brothers and sisters or their parents. Children with a fear of failure will often be observed as quiet, shy or just the opposite, one that is the "class clown" – engaging in behaviors that mask the real problem. These children rarely answer a question in a class discussion or complete their assignments.

    Young children feel incredibly stressed by the many demands they face at home and at school. It’s sometimes nerve-wracking work to grow up. It might not occur to your young one who is stressed out that some of the other children feel the same way. It can even relieve your child’s personal pressure to stop and notice that some of his friends, also, feel anxious and over burdened with chores and schoolwork. In this case, just knowing that others share like burdens, will bring him some comfort.

A Note about Shyness

Children who are not at ease with other people can overcome their reticence, and the sooner they start working on it, the better for their sense of well being, academic performance and, later, professional success. Here are ways to help your youngster overcome shyness and realize his full potential:

    1. Provide direction. You can help your child ease into social situations. A shy child may watch other children playing but not participate even though he really wants to join in the fun. Walk with your young one to the group and encourage him to say "hi" and watch a little more a closer range until he feels comfortable enough to join in the group. Then make a quiet exit.
    2. Practice "social reconnaissance". If your young one is invited to a party or a sleepover find out who else will be there. More times than not if your shy little one knows some of the kids attending, it will make him feel more comfortable.
    3. Rehearse an "unshy" image. Role-play with your child. Rehearse scenes in which he moves effortlessly through social settings. Develop a conversational script with him before he attends an event. Help him practice his lines: "Hi, I’m Kyle. Can I join in?" or, simply, "What are you doing? I’d like to play."
    4. Promote Compliments. The quickest route to social success is by complimenting and encouraging other people. This may be a natural tendency for some shy children because many shy people tend to be sensitive and empathic.

Another factor that comes in the way of intrinsic motivation is:

  • desire for attention
    This is sad, but sometimes true that some children use poor school success as a way of getting your attention or the teacher’s in school. In this fast paced world some children who are doing "O.K." in school may not perceive that they are getting enough of their parent’s attention. These children who previously did everything "right": got decent grades, completed homework assignments and did their chores can feel ignored simply because they are not causing problems. Children who are very dependent on their parents and teachers for their schoolwork and tend to "act out" occasionally see this kind of behavior as a means of getting the attention that they so need and seek. I have worked with a few children that have a
  • "schoolwork is not important" attitude
    Children often tell me that they cannot see how homework and schoolwork relates to everyday life or why it is important. These children need to be reminded that going to school is their "job" and the work that is expected to be completed is their responsibility and part of the job. Adults get rewarded (paychecks, promotions, awards) for going to work everyday and fulfilling their duties successfully. I believe some type of reward would be helpful when trying to help develop motivation in some children who have this attitude. Discussing the usual transfer of skills learned in school may also help in stimulating your child’s inner drive (e.g. adding and subtracting is needed to balance a checkbook, knowing measurement conversions and reading skills are necessary for putting together a delicious recipe.)

Some children cannot focus and attend in class and while doing homework due to

  • emotional problems
    Emotional concerns can block the learning process. Depression, frustration, anxiety, fear or current home problems could interfere with your child’s motivation also. Telling the difference between the kids who are depressed and in need of professional help and those who are simply passing through a developmental stage can be very difficult. How can you identify a child who may need professional help? Dr. Ed Hammer, a professor of pediatrics and a developmental psychologist at the Texas Tech School of Medicine at Amarillo, says that if a child experiences one of the following four conditions, chances are that abnormal behavior could point to a child being depressed.

    1. Living a chaotic life: several moves, divorce, a parent’s frequent job changes
    2. Living with a family member who is depressed or a family history of depression
    3. Undergoing a traumatic or painful event
    4. Failure to form an attachment to a parent. This may occur in families with alcohol or other drug related problems.

    It’s important to know what is normal behavior for your child, because kids who are depressed can act either quiet and withdrawn or boisterous and aggressive. According to Dr. Hammer, the key to identifying depression in young people is to look for marked and prolonged changes in behavior. If you suspect these difficulties to be inhibiting your youngster’s school success it would be beneficial to see your family doctor for a referral to a specialist to help eliminate these patterns that you suspect limit his motivation.

    A number of children use schoolwork and their lack of progress as an expression of

  • anger
    For some reason, young ones exhibit anger towards their parents using their school achievement and behavior as their "control". This is often, called a passive-aggressive approach. For example, if a child feels pressure to "keep up" academically with his siblings he may argue with his parents about doing homework or studying for a test – a divergent tactic. This is something within the child’s range of control – poor academic achievement. The more you, as a parent, try to control and structure reinforcement to turn around his behavior, the lower his grades fall.

    Only in a small number of students, I have witnessed, exhibited a

  • lack of challenge
    From time to time children can be bored with schoolwork. A student may be "unmotivated" if class work is below his level. In this case, the child is truly not challenged enough and has very little interest in the concepts already learned and the tasks that are assigned. This is a rare occurrence, but one that should be considered when assessing your child’s motivational level.
    As a parent, you are essential to the development of your child’s motivation. You can make a difference in your child’s attitude toward schoolwork and encourage his interest and perseverance in tasks pertaining to schoolwork.
    Here are some helpful tips to help develop your child’s motivation:
    • provide a loving, accepting home environment
    • be concise in your guidance
    • give feedback often
    • set a good example
    • build on your child’s non academic strengths
    • parallel schoolwork to your child’s other interests
    • help your child set goals
    • provide the structure and organization to attain goals
    • offer choices when doing homework
    • emphasize progress made
    • reinforce behaviors that are desired
    • chose rewards with your child that are congruent to his interests


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