Published on: May 8, 2018

How Do I Motivate My Child To Learn?

Chaya Zlatopolsky MA, LBSI

I hear this question more often than any other. “How do I motivate my child to learn?” Motivating a child can seem like a daunting task, but rather than seeing your child as a vessel needing to be filled, see them as a person reaching out toward what interests them. Help your child to develop a love for learning by encouraging him or her to take the lead.

  • Discover what sparks your child’s curiosity
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Get on their eye level
  • Make plenty of eye contact
  • And smile, learning is fun!

Once you’ve identified what your child enjoys, use the information to anchor a lesson. For example, your 8-year-old daughter loves butterflies? Delight her with a trip to a nature center where she’ll see butterflies hovering over wild flowers. Together, take the time to observe and wonder. Ask open-ended questions and let your daughter share her perspective. Dramatically, point out something that you noticed and that sparked your curiosity. Alternatively, think out loud. “Wow, that Giant Swallowtail’s wings are enormous; it reminds me of a bird! Did you see? I am amazed how gracefully it glides despite its size.” The child is listening and absorbing while you are modeling enjoyment of the learning process. This ‘think aloud’ is her first introduction to thinking about her thoughts and it’s the first step towards metacognition, or what we refer to as ‘thinking about our thinking’.

Follow up with a trip to the library where you can choose books about different butterflies and research answers to some of the questions that intrigued you both earlier on.

How different is this approach from giving out stickers and prizes! You may think you motivated the child to learn, where in truth you diverted their attention and instead motivated the child to seek out prizes. The child may open a book to learn about butterflies, but incentives made it about earning a sticker, the focus became getting the prize.

Consider the following scenario, “Mom, I’m done studying for my Chumash quiz! Can I get a candy?!” How often does this happen, where our children look for external rewards when the real reward is right before them. The child’s preparedness for the quiz, and their gained knowledge will be their true reward. If you still want to give the child a piece of candy, let them get the candy separately and not as a reward. This is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – the need to know that drives all of us to learn versus the desire to receive an external reward. Ultimately, we want the child to be motivated by the learning process and by the desire to acquire knowledge.

Really, we do things for many reasons, and not just to satisfy our natural curiosity or to acquire a reward. There are many other factors which drive motivation. Motivation can be relationship driven: the child’s desire for you to like her, accept her, approve of her behavior, etc. She’ll do what she can to please you. Or perhaps it is fear and avoidance of punishment: the child will do what needs to be done just to keep out of trouble. Punishment or fear of disappointing a loved one would also fall under this category.

All of the above, however, would fall under extrinsic motivation, doing A to receive or B to avoid. Intrinsic motivation is the internal and personal drive motivated by the actual thing we are seeking.

Are there times when stickers and prizes are necessary? Of course! We all have moments when are our internal engine needs some extra fuel to fire it up. Our job is to not silence the intrinsic desire to learn and making learning all about the prize store.

Chaya Zlatopolsky MA, LBSI, is an award-winning licensed educator and certified Feuerstein mediator. She is the Director of Center for Learning Abilities and Founder of Play Thinks. You can contact her at (773) 937-7527 or grow@playthinks.org.


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