Parents typically and inadvertently teach their children that school performance is for the parent and the teacher—not for them. Parents place so much value on grades and performance that the message to the child is, I care more about how you do than what you do. For too many children, school is a place to endure, and if they don’t do well, they can feel like they are a huge disappointment to the most important people in their lives. We need to hand over education to our children and let them know they have our support in doing the best they can but not our disapproval if they don’t.
Jacquelynne Eccles, professor of psychology and research scientist at the University of Michigan, has said, “… motivation and engagement in school on average drops as they move from the elementary school into the secondary school system. You see it in attendance, in getting into trouble, in drop outs from high school and also in dropping out of college.” Dr. Eccles’ perspective of why this is stems from the mindset of the student. She explains, “They don’t think they can succeed in school. They don’t think it’s important; they don’t see its relevance to their lives. It creates too much anxiety. It’s not taught in a way that’s interesting, so it has no appeal to them.” She says, “…students are more likely to be fully engaged in school if they expect they can do well and if they value the learning that schools provide.”
That’s where parents come in. Eccles goes on to say that intrinsic motivation is essential and is reinforced for students when parents are in active discussion about the relevance of their education.
Unfortunately most parenting practices focus on extrinsic motivation: giving a “consequence” for undesirable behavior, performance, grades, etc. Whenever rewards or punishments (withdrawal of privileges, phones, freedom) are used by parents in an attempt to motivate better behavior, the opposite is usually the result. That is because the motivation is external, and nothing intrinsic is learned.
It is critical to maintain connection with your children through positive relationships based on trust that your children want to do well. You are their rock. Make sure that you support whatever their experience is and believe in their ultimate success.
Ways to help your children feel motivated in school:
- Greet your child everyday after school with physical touch, eye contact and words expressing how happy you are to see them. Save questions about their day for later or wait until they tell you.
- Trust them to handle their own homework assignments. Do show interest in their studies and assignments. Offer your help when needed, but try not to get involved without being asked.
- Give your children ownership of their education. Let them experience the consequences of good or bad grades without adding your approval or disapproval. Acknowledge their effort at all times (even when you see little). When they do well, express that you know how proud they must be of themselves (intrinsic) rather than how proud you are of them (extrinsic).
- Value school-related activities other than grades and test scores, i.e. being helpful to a friend, interest in something non-academic, relationships with teachers and friends, sports, music.
- Ask each child what they would like to accomplish this year—how they would like the school year to end and how to reach that goal. Notice where effort, determination, and mastery occur.
- Ask, “If you were to overhear your teacher talking about you, what would you like to hear your teacher say?”
- Focus on the process and content of their learning. Take focus off grades and performance. Never compare one child’s accomplishments with another’s.
- When grades are given, ask your children what they think—are they fair, are they accurately representative of their effort? Let them grade themselves.
- If your children are having difficulty, help them break work down into small bit-sized chunks that can be accomplished more easily. Validate their effort and be understanding of their frustration. Share a story from your past.
- Try not to punish (give consequences) or reward performance or grades. Do not teach your children that what you care most about is what they produce.
Your children want nothing more than to be a successful learner. If they fall behind or do poorly, they tend to focus on and exaggerate their difference from other students and consider themselves a failure—if their parents have not placed value on learning for learning’s sake instead of performance.
Our kids need to feel unconditionally accepted. When performance is poor, that acceptance means, You are having a difficult time right now. Let’s find out how to make it better, rather than, You are not doing what I want you to do. You then accept the difficulty your child is experiencing instead of putting conditions on it.
Your child will better understand the relevance of his education when you value learning over performance. When you are there as their support, when home is the place they can let it all hang out, they become motivated by your belief in them. Then success at any level becomes something they strive for.