Ask 1-on-1 Coaching: How Keeping Your Child’s Eyes on the Prize Translates into Better Behavior

Posted August 27, 2009 by

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When it comes to teaching your child skills, remember to keep their eyes on the prize.  This means  reminding your child of what they enjoy doing and what privileges they’ll earn once their responsibilities have been met.  Another part of this technique is looking for ways your child is improving or making an effort and commenting on that.  When you can specifically state, “I saw you do this,”  or “I heard you talking to your sister nicely…good job,” it shows you’re paying attention.

Let’s face it, learning new skills and then putting them into practice is difficult and it’s hard work.  Think about that for a second—the goals that we define for our children carry with them an expectation to perform day in and day out.  When we want our child to do well in school, we don’t mean “do your work today and tomorrow you’re off the hook.”  The pressure of life’s demands is constant and I think it’s effective to highlight for our kids what they have to look forward to — and what they’re succeeding in doing well.

I remember a high school teacher telling me that if I was planning on going to college, I needed to be “on” everyday.  He basically was saying that if I wasn’t prepared to perform 100% everyday, then maybe I wasn’t prepared for college.  I think back on this and remember feeling discouraged by his words; I’d classify it as poor coaching on the teacher’s part, because rather than motivating me, his words actually made me feel discouraged — after all, what teenager is “on” every single day?  I think it would have better if he had also kept my eyes on the prize by mentioning what was in it for me if I worked harder at performing every day, and what skills were necessary to make that happen. What I would suggest to a parent or teacher in this situation is to explore what’s going on for the child — and let them know why it’s in their best interests to succeed.  So you could say, “You told me you wanted to be a computer animation artist. That means you really have to pay attention in math class if you want to get what you want.”

I think you also need to identify what the stumbling block is in order to help your child solve the problem differently; this will help you figure out what kind of limits you can set to help your child approach the problem differently. Kids are very much about the here and now and lack the ability to see the big picture or plan for the future.  They need someone to urge them on, keep them focused and motivated to continue working towards the goal.  Don’t use your own failure or child’s failure as a reason to give up on the goal: there’s absolutely no problem solving involved with that.  Think of it this way: failure is an opportunity to take a look at what’s working and what’s not.

For parents, even though you grow up and your skills and ability to plan improves (I mean, a lot of us can fulfill our obligations on auto-pilot) encouragement can take your child a long way.  Being a good coach is simply one of the many skills a parent can call on. For some of us, it may be more natural to focus on the problem or what’s not working, so we have to work a little harder to develop that inner coach!

When it comes to being a parent, what kind of encouragement has proven to be the most inspiring to you?  Have you noticed your child responding well to encouragement — and what did you say to motivate them?


As a 1-on-1 Coach, Tina Wakefield coached parents on techniques from the Total Transformation, as well as Empowering Parents' other programs, for over 8 years. Tina is also a mother and stepmother.

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  1. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    Adeola: I can appreciate your concern for your son’s academic development. Most parents want their children to perform their best and do well in school. However, it is completely developmentally appropriate for such a young boy to be more motivated to play than to write neatly or even write at all. Our recommendation would be to pick your battles. In other words, as long as he is following the instructions on the homework and getting average or better grades, don’t worry too much about whether he writes a complete sentence or writes neatly. You’ll probably find that focusing on him doing the work to completeness rather than it being done perfectly will make both your afternoons less stressful. Once his work is done, then he can have some time to play his games. If you are still concerned that his work is sub-par, it is best to check in with the teacher and discuss it. After all, it’s the teacher’s job to grade the work and determine whether your son is meeting grade-level expectations.

  2. adeola (Edit) Report

    please i need advice on how to handle m 7 year old sons laziness.
    he is extremely goood with video games,wii,psp and even the playstation2 and 3 but when i want him to do some accademic work like literacy or math problems he starts looking for ways to escape like saying he is looking for a sharpener or an eraser etc
    and even when he writes he writes in a hurry thereby given his task a rough look and when he does the given task he answers in a lazy way ,example,if he is asked a simple quetion in a literacy text like there 10 boys ina room wearing colorful shirts ranging fromblack yellow and orange and the question is how many boys are wearing yellow out of the 10 ?my son will just write the figure 4 instead of saying there are 4 boys wearing yellow shirts.please can u advise on how to handle such intelectual laziness and bad hand writting at age 7?thank you

  3. mmh (Edit) Report

    HI – I read the information on motivating teens. I have a 15 yr old son who is very smart and sweet (w/add) having challenges keeping his work up. Can you direct me to or give me some encouraging words to give him. I’m feeling like I might be more discouraging like your teacher was. Thanks!

  4. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report


    Sibling rivalry is a big issue for so many families and rivalry and jealousy are normal feelings for your girls to be experiencing. The goal is to help them manage those feelings appropriately as opposed to trying to change how they feel about one another. You want to set up clear consequences for the girls when they argue and in your case, your older daughter needs to be accountable for the abusive behavior that is being inserted into the conflict. There are two articles that I’m going to include; one will give you an effective response for when your older daughter claims you love her sister more and the other will give you the tools to get the behavior under control. I wish you well and let us know how it’s going.

  5. sandi (Edit) Report

    My daughter is 10 and she is constantly mean to her 7 year old sister. She is verbally abusive and at times can be phsyically abusive ( pinching) As well, she tries to bully her by getting in her face. She feels that my husband and I are kinder and more loving to her younger sister. This is somewhat true as I find it difficult to deal with her behaviour ( anxiety, tics, and possible ocd). I need advice as to how I can help to restore a sisterly relationship and what I should or shouldnt do when the two are fighting.

    Thank you

  6. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report

    Pam B.,

    I know that it’s very difficult to do, but James Lehman stresses how it’s much more effective to focus on the behavior and not the attitude. For instance, instead of trying to convince your son that he needs to be a team player and care about the work, just state your expectations with him as far as what you want to see him do. That may be an hour of study time a day and receiving some tutoring, either at the school or privately. Hold him accountable for forming a plan that will help him be more successful in spite of his distaste for the work. It probably is challenging and frustrating for him, but that doesn’t make it Okay not to do it. You mention that there is little follow-through, so now may be a good time to slowly put some structure in place. I’m going to include some links for a couple articles that I think you’ll find helpful:

  7. Pam B. (Edit) Report

    We have a 16 y.o. son who was diagnosed with ADHD in 1st grade. He was on various medications for four years, but not currently. He has fought us continuously, from day 1 with homework, he HATES it. His attitude toward school work is this, “I do my work when I’m at school, outside of school, leave me alone!” I have also been informed that if he doesn’t understand something at school, he shuts down & blows it off, not accepting that he has to learn it eventually. He is quite rude when he doesn’t get his way and he doesn’t care where he is with me AND he only acts this way with me. My husband can be rude as well, but he calms down & rationalizes whereas our son just keeps going until he gets his way. The discipline sucks. There is very little follow through. Our son is in ROTC at school & loves it, but there is still often very little respect toward me & I have been in tears because of it. I am really tired of the lack of harmony.

  8. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report


    Although it can be tough for parents of teens, it is certainly developmentally normal that your daughter values her relationships with her peers above everything else. I’m glad that you’re asking about how your daughter can earn back privileges because James Lehman would say that privileges are a key motivational tool to get your daughter to change her behavior. If privileges are being restricted and there isn’t a way to earn them back then your daughter is basically “doing time” and is likely to become apathetic and resentful. We want her to learn to comply with the rules and then get the pay off of enjoying those privileges that she values. We encourage people to set up a standard consequence for lying: Let your daughter know that when you catch her in a lie she’ll lose one of her privileges for 24 hours. It’s important to make any consequence short term because we want to give her another shot at practicing the desired behavior and skills. In addition to setting up a consequence for the dishonesty, it’s going to be necessary to problem solve with her on how she’s going to help herself follow the house rules. If she can sit down and talk with you about this, then maybe that can earn some privileges back. Those are privileges that you can always put on restriction later if she isn’t following the plan you come up with. Good luck with this!

    Here are some articles that I think you’ll find helpful:

  9. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report

    Dear Linda,

    My main suggestion would be to try and avoid convincing your son that he needs to be grounded and think about his future or any argument along those lines. Many children have a ‘dreamer’ mentality and that leads them to believe that success and things that they want will come to them without planning and hard work. It’s important to refrain from giving long drawn out speeches about the reality of life and the importance of hard work because it isn’t going to help your child be more responsible. A lot of kids out there are disinterested in school and your son saying the he’s going to be a professional skateboarder is a way to justify why school is beneath him and isn’t necessary. Focus on your son’s behavior and not his attitude about whether or not school is important. Let him know that good school performance is an expectation in your home. Make it clear what the house rules are around behavior at school and homework and what the consequences will be if he’s not following those rules. You might find this article helpful for some more structure around schoolwork:

  10. tara (Edit) Report

    I have a 12 year old girl, who I just found out has been doing multiple things behind my back, who also does not have respect for authority, along with lying to get what she wants. I feel as though her family and school are the last things on her mind and all she is worried about is her friends (who aren’t really good friends) and being able to have freedom to do what she wants. She currently has just about everything taken away, but I would like suggestions on rewards/consequences that are appropriate for her in regards to when and how she should get privleges back. Thank you for any help in this matter

  11. Dale Sadler (Edit) Report

    For the purposes of Tina’s well-written article and the discussion here, the words praise and encouragement can be used interchangeably. I simply have an observation to interject. Some studies have shown that praise, in its truest meaning, can harm a child’s drive to succeed. Here’s the short of the study: Take two groups of students and give them each a puzzle. They both complete it. Tell one group, “Wow, I can tell you worked hard on that.” [Encouragement that implies they’re hard workers] and then tell the other, “Wow! You must be really smart” [Praise]. The first focuses on the effort and the second focuses on the child’s ability to accomplish something. What happened in the study when both groups were given a more difficult puzzle? The “Praise” group gave up more easily because the task was not as pleasant. They couldn’t prove they were smart. The encouragement group worked more diligently and accomplished the task. This article can be found in the spring 1999 issue of American Educator, Carol S. Dwek’s article entitled, “Caution – Praise Can Be Dangerous.”

  12. Lulu (Edit) Report

    Great article, I have a 16 year old son who makes poor choices and doesn’t do well in school. I decided to take him out of the traditional high school and put him in home school. My job allows me to be home during the day so I’m able to supervise him. He wants to join the marines after high school so I’m constantly reminding him of that when he doesn’t want to do his work. I don’t want him to join the marines but for now that’s what motivates him. I always remind him that he can be anything he wants in life but that he needs to work hard for it. My little girl is easily motivated, we constantly praise her for doing well and that continues to motivate her.

  13. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report


    Younger children are so amazing to motivate because they’re motivated by the simplest things!!!! It’s fun to be silly and enjoy how the little things hold so much meaning for them. It’s also so important to remember that praise continues to be a powerful motivator even as they get older. Thanks for this post, it was SUPER HELPFUL!

  14. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report


    Since children have a limited capacity to be mindful of the big picture, the best way to keep them moving along is to break things down into smaller goals and motivate them day-to-day. As a parent, you can model what that balance looks like by putting that philosophy into action in your own life. That may be possible simply by making a comment like, “It’s important in this family to save money, but tonight we’re going to go out for dinner and have fun.” That way the message is that it’s important to plan but it’s equally as valuable to be spontaneous and do things on the fly!

  15. Tina Wakefield (Edit) Report

    Kathy N.:

    That’s fantastic! An education is a valuable thing and parents can channel that awareness to motivate their children. I’m glad to hear that you’re finding Empowering Parents helpful and I look forward to hearing about how this approach works for your son. Keep in mind that in addition to showing your son the things that can be gained from attending college, you can also use his privileges to motivate him on a day-to-day basis. Doing what he needs to today will carry him to that longer term goal of attending culinary school. I wish you well!

  16. Becc (Edit) Report

    Ive found with my small children that by making the learning experience fun they want to keep doing it over and over…like my 3 year old, he does something im trying to teach him how to do, say clean his room, and he does it…i give him a high five and tell him hes my SUPER HELPER!!….he says…I AM A SUPER HELPER!!

  17. stacy (Edit) Report

    I am a 45 yo mom trying to live more in the moment, and teaching my kids to “keep their eyes on the future.” How might you suggest teaching kids that balance… enjoying the moment AND staying motivated for the future?

  18. Kathy N. (Edit) Report

    This article really helps me with my son (almost 18) who is struggling with finishing high school. He’s just now beginning to see the bigger picture, showing interest in college and life beyond. It takes some kids a bit longer, they often get stuck and stumble in places, trying to figure themselves out. I’ve changed my responses to him, relieving some of the “college pressure” that his so prevalent at his high school. This has helped a great deal. Reminding him to keep his eyes on the prize (in his case, a culinary career) will be a great tool I can use to keep him motivated. After a few rocky teen years with my son, I’m seeing a mature, caring, smart young man emerge. Thanks for sensible advice that parents can REALLY use.



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