Motivation - an internal desire or need that energizes one's life and gives it direction - is important to success. Many believe that it is more important than natural abilities or aptitudes. At some point in your child's development, you will probably feel that your child lacks sufficient motivation. Most parents face this worry. Different "signs" may trigger this concern - your child seems turned off by everything, complains excessively about school or home life, drops out of activities, or acts particularly bored with routine and non-routine events. Your concern comes from a sincere interest in your child's future and well-being. That is why it is so important not to react in ways that might actually make the problem worse.
Simply put, encouragement, not criticism, inspires children. When a parent criticizes a child, even constructively, that child is often discouraged and less motivated to do what is expected. On the other hand, by noticing and encouraging good behavior, a parent will see more of that good behavior. For example, complimenting your child for completing her homework before going out to play will encourage the same behavior to be repeated. "Thank you for picking up your room" will produce better results than "How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your room?"
Criticism can sink into a harmful cycle when the parent criticizes in a humiliating, hurtful way. "You are being really stupid!" "What is the matter with you?" "Don't you ever learn?" The child internalizes the criticism, loses confidence, becomes angry and alienated, and becomes less motivated to behave. The parent criticizes, and the child reacts. Both parent and child begin to believe that the child is all of those negative things.
On the other hand, parents who look for their children's good behaviors are far less likely to find faults. The children feel good about themselves, their behaviors improve, the improvements are recognized, and their motivation increases. All motivational problems are not simply solved and can require professional help. But parents can make a huge impact by focusing on and supporting the good in their children.
Motivating high school students
One of your important parental roles is that of motivator. One of the most challenging times in that role may occur during high school. One or more of your children may have been struggling with motivation through earlier grades, or this may be something new. Talking to your children openly, without judgment, may help you find out the root cause. Fear of failure, lack of confidence in themselves and the future, lack of academic success, social pressures, and lack of goals can all contribute.
Lack of motivation in high school can take many forms: poor attendance, low grades, lack of involvement in activities, risk behaviors, and dropping out. The Oregon Department of Education collects data about students who drop out of high school in the state. In the 2002-2003 school year, "Lack of parent support for education" was by far the most frequently cited reason. Other frequently cited factors were "Too far behind in credits to catch up," "Working more than 15 hours a week," "Dysfunctional home life," and "Frequent discipline referrals."
These data suggest that your commitment to learning is a key ingredient for your role as motivator. Actively promote learning, in high school and beyond. Help your children set some short-term goals that can build confidence and commitment to school. Help them understand that knowledge and skills are necessary to get and keep a good job. Through connecting their dreams to reality, they will find that they will need to keep learning after high school (through a two- or four-year college program, career school or apprenticeship program, or in the military). High school classes form a foundation for life.
Your high school children are not too old for you to actively promote their academic success. Here are some strategies:
- Read. Reading is the foundation for all learning. Read yourself. Keep exposing your teens to a wide variety of reading materials (newspapers, magazines, books, Web) and be ready to discuss what they have learned. Helping them develop good reading habits and skills is one of the most important contributions you can make to their education.
- Practice writing at home. Letters, journal entries, e-mail messages, and grocery lists are all writing opportunities. Show that writing is an effective form of communication and that you write for a variety of purposes.
- Make math part of everyday life. Cooking, gardening, paying bills, balancing a checkbook, and even shopping are all good ways to help your teens understand and use mathematical skills. Show that there may be many ways to get to the right answer and encourage your children to explain their methods for any problems they solve.
- Expect that homework will be done. Keep track of homework assignments and regularly look at your student's completed work. Some teachers now give parents a number to call for a recorded message of that day's homework assignments; others put the information on the Internet. If your school doesn't offer these features, talk to the teacher about how you can get this important information. Even if there aren't specific assignments, find out how you can stay informed about what your teen is working on so that you can help at home.
- Build relationships with your teenager's teachers. Find out what each teacher expects of your children and how you can help them meet those expectations.
- Use the community as a classroom. Encourage your children to volunteer in a field or area of interest in order to show how learning connects to the real world. These activities will reinforce what is learned in the classroom and may help your teens decide what to do in the future.
- Encourage group study. Open your home to your teenagers' friends for informal study sessions. Promote outside formal study groups through church or school organizations or other groups. Study groups will be especially important as your children become older and more independent. The study habits learned in high school will carry over into college and work.
- Spend time at school. The best way to know what goes on at your teens' school is to spend time there. If you're a working parent, this isn't easy, and you may not be able to do it very often. But "once in a while" is better than "never."
Strategies adapted from Indiana's Learn More Resource Center, "10 Things Parents Can Do to Help Students Succeed," at http://www.learnmoreindiana.org/@parents/parents_912/support_learning/quick_tips.xml