Q: My fifth-grade son, Brennan, slides by in school and shrugs off homework, but likes his teacher. Threats don't work. The teacher wrote that he's smart and could do better if he were more motivated. Isn't that her job?
A: She's doing her job; she's reaching out to you for help. Make an appointment to see her. Tell Brennan you're meeting with her to find out how to make learning more fun for him. Invite him to come. That might boost his motivation.
Parental actions and expectations have a huge influence on a student's desire to learn. The trick is in knowing how to use that influence. First, ditch the technique you're using.
"Negative outcomes for negative behavior don't work," says Albuquerque educator Jane Bluestein, Ph.D., author of "The Parent's Little Book of Lists: DOs and DON'Ts of Effective Parenting."
"Rather than say, 'If you don't do your homework, you can't play video games,' switch to positive consequences," she says. "If he does his homework for a week, let him choose the menu for a weekend dinner. Sure it's a bribe, but there is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. Every decision we make is influenced by an anticipated outcome. We either choose the option that offers the most meaningful benefit or the option that protects us from some form of loss.
"Choosing dinner is a meaningful benefit -- it celebrates his achievement, provides family fun, gives him a sense of control and reinforces good behavior."
Ask Brennan's teacher how you can connect his fifth-grade curriculum to his home life.
"The more kids see the connections between what they learn in class to their experiences outside of school, the more interest and pleasure they'll take in learning," says Kathy Seal, co-author with Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., of "Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning."
Talk with him about what he's learning in class. Is he studying the solar system? Share a video or read an article on the recent meteorite that landed on Earth. Is he studying the weather? Watch the Weather Channel with him for a week and graph weather where friends and relatives live. Find more activities to reinforce learning at home at greatschools.org.
Linking school to life also means asking children to apply knowledge to everyday tasks at home, says Seal. If the family needs a new washer, ask Brennan to research models, prices, consumer ratings, warranties and chart it before you head out to stores. Discuss his analysis with him: What does sales tax and delivery add to prices?
"The more you involve him in using his learning, the more empowered he will feel," says Bluestein. "Demonstrating our competence is a great motivator!"
Specific encouragement is more motivating than general praise, Bluestein advises.
"Parents tend to overpraise and undervalue achievement," she says. "For example, if Brennan gets a good grade on a science project, don't say, 'You're so smart!' Recognize the specific accomplishment.
"Try, 'I'm impressed that you know the steps in the scientific method. And you learned to spell hypothesis! It took me years to learn it!'"
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)