This is another common question we encounter at BrainFit. When a child is not motivated, parents often blame it on an uninspiring teacher, wrong teaching techniques, or laziness. While some of these may be the cause, there may be other factors which we will discuss below.
1. Inadequate competence and success experience – Imagine that you are filled with zest and excitement as you attend your first tennis class. You buy yourself an expensive tennis racquet and find yourself a good coach. As you return the ball to your coach, your body feels uncoordinated and you keep missing the ball. Now imagine that for most of the 45min class, you are picking up balls, with only a few successes in hitting the ball. Despite your coach’s constant reminders to bend your knees and keep your eyes on the ball, you just have a hard time hitting the ball. Now, you may convince yourself that this poor performance is simply because it is your first class. With more classes and practice, you remain confident you can be a good tennis player some day. Imagine you have now attended 10 classes, and each time, your performance is only marginally better than what you did in your first class. At this point, do you think your zeal and excitement for tennis will still be at the same high level as before? Probably not. In fact, it is likely that you may give up on the game altogether!
We are usually motivated to do things we are able to succeed in. While we may need to put in effort, we can also feel the rewarding sense of achievement and pride as we accomplish the task. We may not always be successful on every occasion, but certainly, there are enough experiences of success to make us want to try harder and do better next time, i.e. being motivated. If, after putting in excessive effort, one is still not able to achieve success due to a lack of competence, motivation will ultimately start to diminish as well.
2. Negative learning mindsets – Some students may have strong learning capabilities but have negative mindsets towards learning. They may feel that no amount of effort will be able to overcome their innate weaknesses in learning. Such students avoid putting in effort as they believe efforts are futile. For them, the glass is always half empty, and worse, will remain so no matter what they do. It is easy to understand how such a mindset can kill motivation and zest towards learning.
3. Fear of failure or a “perfectionistic” mindset – Some students have little tolerance for mistakes and failures, to the point that it paralyses them from seeking to accomplish more. These students place excessive concern on the outcomes of their efforts, which robs them of the joys of the learning process. For these students, a result which is “below expectation” may be excruciatingly uncomfortable to them. As a result, they may simply give up and avoid working hard altogether. For many, it may be easier to cope with “I didn’t try” rather than “I couldn’t do it”.
4. The “strawberry” generation – Nowadays, our children are raised with far greater comfort then what we experienced when we were growing up. In our quest to provide the best for our children and minimise their struggles, we may have deprived them from opportunities to develop the ability to endure frustrations and hardships. When a brain is not used to handling emotions associated with frustrations, endurance or discipline, it is easy to give up at the first sign of hard work or challenge. Often, these children do not have clear life goals as they have always been comfortably provided for all their lives.
Here are my 5 parental tips on boosting motivation:
1. Build brain fitness – If you are concerned that your child is not motivated for school or learning, ask yourself, is your child experiencing enough successes in school and learning? Is he/she competent in learning such that the efforts put in match the successes experienced? If the answers are “no”, then you need to consider helping your child develop more competence to achieve greater learning success. Increasing your child’s brain fitness – memory, attention, thinking speed etc. – can build competence, accelerate your child’s learning and give him more successful school experiences.
2. Nurture a growth mindset – Each time your child accomplishes something new, no matter how “small” it may be, highlight the accomplishment to your child. Help him/her understand that our intelligence and abilities are not fixed but something we can grow and extend. Keep conversations focused on your child’s efforts rather than character (which is usually viewed as fixed). Be a role model to your child by continuing with your own self-development and acquiring of new skills even as an adult. That way, your child gets to see for himself/ herself how our capabilities can always be expanded as we put effort into them.
3. Accept mistakes as part of learning – When your child gets 80/100 in a test, do not rush to criticise how the 20 marks were lost. Spend some time celebrating the 80 marks achieved before evaluating the errors as a process of learning. For children who tend to be perfectionistic, it is vital that they learn to understand that failures are inevitable in the road to success. Failures should not be seen as the opposite of success. Rather, they should be viewed as the stepping stones towards success. As parents, we need to also examine our own attitude towards failure and success so that we can impart a healthier view about them to our children.
4. Build grit – Do not be too eager to rush in to help each time you see your child struggle. Whether it is helping your preschooler complete a puzzle or school-going child complete a project, learn how to guide and scaffold, rather than either providing maximal help or no help at all. Scaffolding means providing just the right amount of help to your child so that he or she can complete the task independently. This way your child still gets to experience “struggles” which are manageable and not overwhelming. Scaffolding is a useful skill for parents to develop. It requires strong observation abilities and a good understanding of your child’s capabilities.
5. Attend a motivational camp – Motivational camps are quite popular among parents and students, especially teens. These can be beneficial for students who have good overall learning capabilities but who may have had a bad learning experience, causing them to lose faith in themselves or interest in the subject. A motivational camp usually triggers high levels of emotions and may be able to help your child reframe and get a fresh perspective on learning and school. However, for a child whose underlying issue (such as fear of failure or lack of grit) involves weaknesses in learning skills, , then the immediate “high” and positive attitude seen after a camp may fade quickly as the child returns to reality and is confronted with their deep-seated weaknesses again.