10 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Better in School

by Debbie Pincus MS LMHC
10 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Better in School

“My son is a smart kid, but he doesn’t work hard in school. Now the teacher said he’s in danger of getting F’s in most of his subjects.”

“My daughter just does enough to get by, instead of trying her best. When I talk to her about how important it is to get good grades in high school, she rolls her eyes and tells me she doesn’t care and that it’s boring. It’s enough to make me pull my hair out.”

The truth is, most kids are motivated, but not by what we think should motivate them.

Do you have a child who comes home with failing grades year after year—or straight C’s when you know he could get A’s? You assume, based on his abilities, that he should be more successful in school. It’s enough to drive you crazy—especially because you know how important it is for him to do well so he can get into college someday—or even just graduate. You’re worried sick about his future, so you nag and get on his case about his laziness, lack of motivation and irresponsibility. You just don’t get why he’s so uninterested in doing well, so you try everything you can think of to motivate him. But try as you might, the situation doesn’t get better—in fact, it gets worse.

Related: Is your unmotivated child driving you crazy?

As a parent, it’s difficult not to become invested in our child’s academic life because we know how important it is for their future. From our perspective, it makes no sense that our kids would put things like friends or electronics before their work. The truth is, most kids are motivated, but not by what we think should motivate them. Look at it this way: your child is probably highly motivated and not at all lazy when it comes to things that excite him, like video games, music, Facebook and what cool new jeans to buy. One thing for certain is that if you pressure your child in order to motivate him, it almost always makes things worse.

Understand that kids need to buy into the value of doing well. Think about it in terms of your own life—even as an adult, you may know it’s best to eat right, but actually following through is another story! In a way, your child must own the importance of doing well himself. Of course external factors may also get in the way (mental or physical illnesses, learning disabilities or behavioral disorders, family issues and substance abuse, to name a few.)  

For some people, all the stars are aligned at the right time—motivation, skill and attitude combine to create a successful outcome. But for most of us, it’s way trickier and a much more uneven path to motivation and success. When you think about it, not every kid asks teachers for help, does all their homework on time all the time, reviews the material they learned each night and puts aside all the other distractions to get down to their studies. The ones who do are typically the kids who have what is called “good executive functioning,” because the front part of their brain is more developed. This plays a significant role in school achievement. It helps the regulation of emotions, attention span, perseverance, and flexibility. For many, many kids their functioning often does not develop until much later in the adolescent years. This is particularly tough if you are a parent who was responsible at an early age, but you now have a child lagging behind. It’s hard to imagine that they’re not just lazy, irresponsible and unmotivated. Of course, if you start believing these things about your child, you will simply get annoyed, frustrated, angry, and reactive to their laziness—which will contribute to the power struggle and to their to their defiance. How can you avoid doing this? Read on to find out.

Related: Trapped in a constant power struggle with your child?

1. Keep a relationship with your kids that is open, respectful and positive. Stay on your kids’ team, don’t play against them. This will allow you to be most influential with them, which is your most important parenting tool. Punishing, preaching, threatening and manipulating will get you nowhere and will be detrimental to your relationship and to their ultimate motivation. Your feelings of anxiety, frustration and fear are normal and understandable. But reacting to your kids out of these emotions will be ineffective. Remember, your child is not behaving this way on purpose to make your life miserable or because they are lazy good-for-nothings. When you feel yourself getting worked up, try saying to yourself, “My child is just not there yet.” Remember, your job is to help them learn how to be responsible. If you get negative and make this a moral issue, then your child might become defiant, reacting to you instead of thinking through things himself.  

2. Incorporate the “when you” rule.  One of life’s lessons is that we get the goodies after we do the work. When you practice shooting hoops every day, you start making more baskets. You get paid after you work at your job. So start saying things like, “When you finish studying you are welcome to go to Gavin’s house.” Or “When your homework is completed, we can discuss watching that movie you wanted to see on Netflix.” Enforce this rule and stick to it. If your child does not yet have the ability to plan and initiate and persevere, by sticking to this rule, you are helping them learn how to do what their own brain is not yet equipped to do, which is to create the structure for him.

Related: How to use consequences in the most effective way.

3. When you are invited in. If your child is not studying and his grades are dropping, you’re invited in whether he wants you or there or not. Again, you’re there to help set up a structure that he is not able to create for himself. The structure might include scheduled study times, having the computer out in a public place in your home, and saying, “No video games or TV until after homework is done.” You might decide that he must spend a certain amount of hours devoted to study time. During this time, no electronics or other distractions are allowed. You might make the rule that even if he finishes all his homework, he must complete study time by reviewing, reading, or editing. You might make the rule that he devotes an hour-and-a-half to quiet time, no electronics, and just doing his work. Understand that it’s not meant as punishment; rather, this is helping him develop a good work ethic and to focus on his school subjects. Some kids do better listening to music while they study, but no other electronics or multi-tasking is recommended.

4. Ask the teacher. If your child’s grades and work habits are not up to par, you can set up a plan by sitting down with him and his teachers. He might have to check with them to make sure he has everything before leaving school, and then check with you before going back to school to make sure all his work is in his bag. Once your child gets better at managing his time, completing his work and reviewing his subjects before tests, then it’s time for you to back off.

5. Identify a study spot. You may need to sit with your child while she’s doing her work or at least be nearby to help her stay on track. She may need a quiet location away from brothers and sisters or she may do better in a room near others. You can help her experiment. But once you find what works best, keep her in that location. You will not do her work for her, but you may need to review her work and ask her if a certain paragraph makes sense to her, for example.

6. Break it down. Decide together whether or not it will be helpful to your child for you to help him break down his assignments into small pieces and organize on a calendar what he should get done each day. You can get him a big wall calendar or a white board. You might also get extra help from his teacher or get a tutor for him if that’s in your budget.

7. Be kind but firm. Try your best to be a parent who is kind, helpful, consistent and firm versus punitive, over-functioning and controlling. For every negative interaction with your child, try to create ten positive ones. Try to put the focus on supporting and encouraging him instead of worrying and nagging. When you start to believe his grades are a reflection of you or your parenting and that you are responsible for his outcome, you will be on his case—and it will be harmful and ineffective.

8. Lack of motivation or anxiety? Recognize that so much of your child’s lack of motivation (or what looks like irresponsibility) might be his own anxiety or shame about academics and schoolwork. Most people have anxiety about doing certain things and avoid them like the plague. Kids may not be able to explain all of this to you because it’s not always on a conscious level for them. Here’s a typical scenario. Let’s say your child tells you he doesn’t have homework when he actually does.  This will stir up your anxiety. When you react to it by yelling or criticizing, your child will manage his anxiety by distancing from it—and from you—more. While a little anxiety can motivate, too much blocks your child’s ability to think and to have access to the part of the brain that helps him with motivation. Keep your emotions in check by recognizing that it’s your child’s anxiety at play rather than his laziness. Your job (and how you will be most helpful to him) is to not react to his anxiety or your own.

Related: Is your family stuck in an anxiety cycle?

Recognize that sometimes your child’s feelings of shame, inferiority or anxiety can be misinterpreted as a lousy attitude, lack of motivation, and irresponsibility. Often the cover up for these vulnerable emotions can take the form of acting out, shutting down, avoidance, and defiance. Remember that what is happening now may look very different as your child matures and develops. In the meantime, in a positive relationship, lend him your brain by helping him with the structure and habits he can’t pull off on his own. And calm yourself by understanding the bigger picture of what is going on now.

9. Teach life balance. Remember to always keep the big picture in mind. Rather than go crazy over your child’s grades, help her to balance her life with friendships, other activities, volunteer work and family activities. Get involved with her school affairs when you can and take an interest in her school projects.

10. Don’t futurize. When we see our child seeming to have no interest in his life, it’s easy to start fast forwarding into the future. When he acts like he doesn’t care about anything except video games and his friends, we worry that he won’t be successful or even functional on his own. This ramps up our anxiety and our fear. But here’s the truth: none of us have a crystal ball or can really see into the future. Focusing on the negative things your child is doing will only bring the spotlight on them, and may set you both up for a power struggle. Instead, focus on your child’s positive traits and help him work on those in the present. Is he outgoing, helpful, or good with animals? Focus on all the things that go into a developed, successful person, not just academics and grades and help your child develop in social, creative, and emotional ways.

Parents are often so worried about their child falling behind that they end up in a power struggle with their kids over it, but nothing gets better. They go round and round, just fighting about the grades and the work. But if you as the parent can calm down and understand that this is not just a bad attitude and an unmotivated kid—and that you can’t force them to be motivated—then you can actually start meeting your child where he is and helping where he needs help. Remember, your goal is to stop the reactivity and solve the problem.

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.



Very good article.

Comment By : MLLucas

Good article! It seems to me that kids tend to want to invest time and energy into things that they are good at. It's really important to help your from a very young age be organized and structured to get their work done; it needs to be "built-in" to their existence. The expectation has to be set early on that it's not an option to not to the work.

Comment By : Gina Gornick

I need more of this and realistic ways to accomplish these goals

Comment By : swimmer

We are in the anxiety tornado. My son was in all advanced classes. He stopped doing homework and his grades dropped. I got anxious over this and scolded him for not trying and we went down that path where the more I pushed the worse it got. He is now in all regular classes. He hardly works and gets A's and B's and a C. He is completely un-challegend and I am afraid it is too late to get him back on track. He is going into his Junior year of HS which is the most important. He says he wants to go to college. He has not done any sports or volunteer work. He has a job on the weekends, but has not done anything else to fill his extra curricular requirements. He failed one of his language classes which was a situation out of his or my control, but he could have made it up over the summer, online and has not done so. He needs the 2nd year of language to go to a 4 year college. There have been times when he wanted to drop out and get his GED. I will not allow this. I am not sure how to pick up the pieces from here and try to give him the confidence or motivation he needs to get ack into the swing.

Comment By : Idon\'tspeakboy.

Anxiety--so that's what it must be. My son is a good student, (6th grader). But just yesterday while doing math homework, he said "I don't care if I fail" ergh!!! It's only the first week of school! He has a nice quiet area to do his homework. I tell him, "I'm here to help" and "I believe in you" etc. I could use some words of encouragement for him. Any suggestions???

Comment By : nicosmom

My son has significant learning disabilities. Luckily for him we found this out very early on. Many kids start to exhibit learning disabilities in middle or high school because they are no longer able to keep up. I think if your kid is really having issues with homework, it is imperative to contact the school. Not to get a homework check in procedure going, but to evaluate if the child is actually being lazy or if they are struggling with the material. Kids don't get anxiety issues just because.. there is usually a reason for the behavior. I also think that holding things hostage is not the appropriate response to homework problems if you have NOT ruled out learning issues. The when you rule can work, but it can also backfire if your kid is really struggling. It can make the anxiety worse because now you are forcing your child to do homework they can't because of reasons unknown to them. They will either check out completely (not care) or they will simply just stop bringing it home. I find that many of the traditional rules presented, like those above, do not always work with kids who have learning issues. You have to be creative with them, and really get to the bottom of WHY they are doing what they are doing.

Comment By : Learning Problems

Last year our family was stuck in the anxiety cycle over homework. This year, we have decided to do things differently. During our last family meeting, we informed our 10 year old son that THIS year there would be no more power struggles. We told him we would be available to help him, but NOT available to do the work for him. We would ask him about homework, but not nag him to do it, and that whatever consequences he got from school would be his to own - good or bad. Tonight is our first homework assignment for this year. I'd appreciate everyone's prayers, since I'm sure he will test our resolve. This article just reinforced our job description as parents, which is to make him independent - and the way to do that is to make him own the consequences of his actions.

Comment By : Calm & Assertive!

* To “Idon'tspeakboy.”: Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. It can be challenging to know how to motivate your child to do better in school or meet college entrance expectations. Ultimately, the responsibility for graduating high school and getting ready for college falls squarely on your son. As Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in the article 4 Ways to Handle Back to School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child, it’s our job as parents to give our children the opportunity for an education and the tools to help them be successful. It sounds like your son has been offered opportunities to get the experiences he may need to apply for college. He has chosen not to avail himself of those opportunities. It’s actually never too late to get a student back on track per se. It would be beneficial to have a clear goal in mind when deciding where you are going to go from here. At this point, we would suggest sitting down with your son and problem solving ways he may be able to get the experiences needed for his college application. You could also encourage him to make an appointment with his guidance counselor to talk about his career goals and possible colleges he could apply to help determine what the exact prerequisites would be. It’s not unusual for freshman and sophomores not to take school as seriously as we would like them to. For some high school students, the junior year is when graduation and college start to get real for them. It will probably be most effective to take a step back from scolding your son in an attempt to motivate him and instead take on the role of helping him problem solve ways he can best meet his goals. As Debbie points out in the article, you can’t force your child to be motivated. You can, however, stay on your son’s team and help him reach his goals for high school and beyond by helping him where he needs help. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to help your son develop the skills he needs to be a successful adult. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “nicosmom”: Thank you for asking such a great question. It’s not unusual for kids to say things like “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter if I fail” when faced with a difficult situation. Sometimes, this can help them exert some control over a situation they find challenging. Try not to give too much attention to those sorts of negative statements. Sometimes, the more attention we give that behavior, the more power we give it. It can be difficult to know exactly what words to use when encouraging our children to do their best. In the end, the exact words we use aren’t the important part. What’s important is that our children know we support them and are on their side, willing to help them when they need it. Encouraging your son by saying things such as “I believe in you,” or something like “I’m here to help,” is an excellent way to let him know you are on his team. If he continues to make self-defeating statements, you can problem solve with him ways he can deal with his frustration. You can ask him what he’s thinking or what he’s trying to accomplish when he says he doesn’t care if he fails. You can then brainstorm with him what he may be able to do differently the next time he’s faced with a challenge. I hope this has been helpful. We wish you and your family the best as you continue working through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

It was really a very good artical.

Comment By : poornima

Another great article. I will keep these in mind for my sophomore. He struggles about Cmas time and nose dives by Spring. I will pin this article on the frige to remind me how to keep him motivated and on track all year round! Thanks EP!

Comment By : luvmykidz

my 17 year old has become very sassy this year he struggles with his work because he isnt on the same level as the other kids,i have tried every thing possible .he is now on anciety med to help him cope.we are very open with one another and it is very hard to explain to him he has to have a diploma to get any where in life.he wants to argue every tim e i try to discuss the outcome of it.i have enrolled him in online learning and have been monitoring his work he has actually improved.and is calmer, he does his work and actually has gotten a part time job in which he has been very dedicated maybe things will get better some children are different than others, i think they have a hard time being around other chidren peer pressure sucks them right in and depending on the morrals you have given to them how they handle themselves.

Comment By : alien parent

Your articles on parenting have really helped me. I am now better in terms of how to manage these young and irresponsible children'

Comment By : Immaculate

An update on the homework... He did it on his own, with no help from us. That was great! And then he came home the next night with the first math test of the year... 5 right out of 24. Oh dear. It's going to be a LONG year. Now we have to get him to do things on his own AT SCHOOL like he does at home.

Comment By : Calm & Assertive

Thank you for the article, excellent. My son 14 has ASD and I have RA. It's very hard sometimes specially now that he started high school in a very demanding school. It's very stressful for both of us, but articles like this help me to calm down and try to be more assertive. Thank you again.

Comment By : loveandcaring

My son is 15 and a sophomore. Its only oct 2nd and he is already failing geometry..he's given up, won't do the hw, fails all the tests, won't go get help with teacher, won't work with us. He just says he can't learn it and won't. What do we do? Algebra I was like this too and he did finally pass both semesters with D's, but this is even worse and way early in the school year. He is very bright..does OK in his other classes, though often does hand things in which sabotages his overall grades. But we are at a loss of what to do to work with him so he doesn't fail geometry. He wants to go to college...wants to be a marine biologist...we feel hopeless though...he talks about dropping out when he's 16 just because he "can't" do math.

Comment By : raven

* To “raven”: Thank you for sharing your story. It can be so difficult when your child is bright enough to do the work but gives up when it becomes too hard or challenging. As Debbie advises in the article, you want to stay on your son’s team while coming up with a plan for how you can best help him. You could start with establishing a homework structure and having your son earn access to privileges by completing his homework. This is an example of incorporating the “when you” rule, as in “When you’ve completed your homework, then you can have free computer time (or access to your video games or cell phone). Try to use a privilege that will motivate your son. You might also consider looking into outside help for your son through a tutor or other academic help program. Different kids learn at different rates so it’s possible your son may just need a little “hurdle help” to learn some of the more complex or challenging concepts in geometry. You might contact the guidance office at your son’s school or your local college/university to find out what types of tutoring services are available in your area. If he is doing well in all of his other classes but continuously struggles in math you might consider having him assessed for a possible learning disability, as James Lehman suggests in his article Sinking Fast at School: How to Help Your Child Stay Afloat. We hope this information is beneficial for your situation and wish you and your family the best as you help your son through this challenging issue.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank you for your helpfulness and generosity.I don't think my child has behavior issues.I do think that I have parenting problems.Your articles have made our lives and relationships much better.There is still a lot to do and I look forward to raising them now.Thanks again.

Comment By : Robert Louis

Thank you for your helpfulness and generosity.I don't think my child has behavior issues.I do think that I have parenting problems.Your articles have made our lives and relationships much better.There is still a lot to do and I look forward to raising them now.Thanks again.

Comment By : Robert Louis

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