QUESTION: I'm struggling with how to keep my kids motivated throughout the school year. In past years, I've felt like the cheerleader, constantly encouraging them to take school seriously. How can I make this year different?
Juli: Truth be told, many parents are dreading the beginning of a new school year even more than their children for just the reason you mentioned. It takes a lot of energy to motivate kids to stay on top of their work!
One key to starting out the year on a positive note is to begin with realistic and objective goals as a source of motivation. Whereas the right kind of goals can be encouraging, the wrong goals can add to feelings of apathy and failure.
First of all, make sure the goals you help your kids set are realistic. For example, most children are not capable of getting all A's and stop trying when they receive their first subpar grade. So, instead, how about setting the goal of getting a higher math grade than you did last year or turning in your assignments on time?
Secondly, your child's goals should be objective or measurable. Having the goal of "working hard" may sound inspiring, but it will feel like nailing Jell-O to a tree unless there is an objective way of seeing progress.
Finally, remember that not all school goals should be academic. Although grades are important, your child may also need to focus on goals more related to character or social skills.
Whether your children are entering kindergarten or college, help them to create a goal or two and write them down. Younger children may need to have their goals mapped on a sticker chart so they can see their progress.
Your job is to slowly transfer the motivation for doing well to your children. Teaching your kids to set and achieve goals is a great step in the process.
QUESTION: I have a happy, smart and energetic 8-year-old daughter who is struggling with two problems -- she's messy and off-task most of the time. She's a straight-A student, but I constantly have to push her to get ready for school, do her homework and get to bed. It's exhausting! She seems unconcerned and unmotivated, and would rather play than anything else. How can I help her?
Jim: We've actually heard from other parents in your situation. Our first thought is that your daughter could use a good dose of self-discipline. This would not only help her be more efficient in completing her tasks, it would also relieve you of the burden of policing her all the time.
Implementing a system of rewards and reinforcement can help your daughter learn to take responsibility and show initiative. Maybe you can tell her that if she gets herself ready for school for a straight week without having to be constantly monitored, you'll take her out for a milkshake on the weekend. (The occasional milkshake is a great motivator for my boys -- and for me, too!)
She also needs to experience negative consequences. You don't want her to flunk out of school, but if you stop hounding her about her homework and she ends up getting a lower grade as a result of turning in an assignment late, the trauma of that experience might offer just the motivation she needs to stay on top of her schoolwork next time.
Be sure to cut her some slack, too. Some kids are more messy and flighty by nature, and you don't want to change her personality entirely. Just be sure to lavish praise and affirmation on her when things go right. A kind and affirming word from you will likely be the best reward of all.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.
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