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How Parents Motivate Their Children Academically
By the department of psychology, University of Michigan, USA

Parent Involvement
In this section, we discuss the use of reward and punishment by parents and its effectiveness. I will also cover the question of 'how involved is too involved'. Some research has found that the excessive involvement of parents with students who are at or above the desired achievement level can be damaging. However, low-achievers can greatly benefit from what may seem like too much parental involvement because they need the structure and that extra nudge.

Achieving the Right Amount of Involvement
For low-achievers, having a parent sit down with them to go over more difficult homework can be very helpful. Students who know that their parent finds their school work important and interesting are more likely to feel more motivated to strive to do better in school. Some extra attention from a parent could make a difference between a child staying a low-achiever and becoming an average-achiever (Cohen, 2001). A few extra hours a day with a low-achieving student might make a world of difference in years to come. Making a plan or a "to do" list with the low-achiever, as well as addressing those harder problems in homework together as a team could be helpful. Its important to let the student know that they have their parent's support.

For an average-achiever, a parent who becomes "too involved" or who worries too much can result in the undermining of the child's sense of "autonomy and motivation" (Cohen, 2001). With a student who has a grade point average of a B or higher, it may be best to occasionally ask that student if they need assistance.
Gender Differences

Research has been done that suggests that girls and boys attribute their success to different factors. "Specifically, girls were found to perceive the primary cause for their success [as well as failure] in schoolwork to be more internal and controllable relative to boys" (Leung,1993). This information should be taken into account when parents are trying to determine the best methods to motivate students. Also see the Helpful Hints section on this web site.

Reward and Punishment: Helpful or Hurtful?
"If you have not started the habit of rewarding with material prizes-don't!" - (2001). Motivating Your Child To Learn. Parents and Children Together Series [Online]

A conception among some, parents and teachers alike, is that rewards and punishment can be useful and effective when trying to motivate a child to do a desired task, such as homework. However, research shows that students who are lured into doing something for a reward are less likely to do it again if no reward is given (Kohn, 1994). Similarly, according to James Kohn, punishment or "consequences" often evokes in a child feelings of "anger, defiance and a desire for revenge" (Kohn, 1994). This means that reward and punishment, even if it seems minor, could produce the opposite of the desired effect.

Robert E. Slavin, author of the Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice textbook, suggests that the most effective type of reward is giving praise. Giving contingent praise, or "praise that is effective because it refers directly to specific task performances", is most effective because it emphasizes that success depends upon the amount of effort one puts in (Slavin, 2006). Receiving praise and good feedback assists students in evaluating themselves, helping them to create reachable goals. Once your student has established goals for homework or studying, they have already begun the process of becoming a self-regulated learner, or a student who has "knowledge of effective learning strategies and how and when to use them" (Slavin, 2006). A parent's goal should be to help their child become a self-regulated learner.

Overall, I would say that rewards and punishments should be avoided if at all possible. They are quick fixes for parents who want to motivate their children to do well in school. In the long run, students will be more motivated and eager to learn if their motivation is not determined by conditional extrinsic factors, but intrinsic ones. Using "praise" only when the child has done well or improved, as Slavin suggests, is a mild form of reward that can teach that the amount of effort exerted and success are positively correlated.

Motivating Students To Learn
By Marilyn Atherley

Parents and teachers all around the globe are pulling their hair out trying to understand why students seem less and less interested in school and school work. It used to be that the parent's job was simply to outfit the child for school and get him there and ensure that homework was neatly done. The teacher's job was to present the information and guide the students through the exercises. Those do not seem to work anymore. Both teachers and parents have to constantly come up with new strategies to ensure good academic performance of the students. It seems that they even have to resort to bribes sometimes.

Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of understanding of what really motivates students. Motivation is a difficult concept to define or explain. Motivation is generally understood as what arouses and sustains a particular behavior. However, it is agreed that, for school purposes at least, there are two types of motivation- the extrinsic motivation and the intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation usually derives from external rewards- prizes, grades, tokens and wanting to do better than others. This leads to students performing solely for these rewards or to avoid shame or embarrassment. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. When a student is driven to do well for his own self-satisfaction in developing a skill, then the learning is more meaningful and long-lasting.

Motivation is optimized when:
A. The person engages in the task for his own reason rather than in response to external pressure.

B. The task is of appropriate level of challenge.

C. There is sufficient choice.

How can parents and teachers set up learning environments to optimize these conditions? The answer to this question is wide and varied. Specific strategies could depend on various cultures and environments. But the following general principles must be applied:

1. The pressure on the student must be minimized, for example, remove the competition or social comparison; revise the grading system.

2. Ensure that the task is of an appropriate level of challenge for the student's age and ability level. If it is too easy the student will be bored and un-motivated. A level of difficulty above the student's ability could lead to frustration and giving up.

3. The task should also be meaningful and relevant to the learner. Students often comment "Why do I have to learn about"¦.. I'll never use this when I grow up!" The aim of the task should be to improve or gain some skill rather than rote memorization of irrelevant facts.

4. Appropriate use of rewards. Use praise liberally. Reward for effort and improvement and not just for performance.

5. Provide choice. Students will be more motivated to engage in a task if they have some say in what the task is, how it is to be carried out and presented. The more controlling the teacher is the less motivated the learner will be.

6. The structure of the learning exercise affects the level of motivation. There must be clear instructions given . The student must be sure of what is expected of him. Guidelines on how the task is to be performed must be specific and well understood. Immediate and useful feedbacks are crucial. A promptly returned assignment with comments indicating where the student went wrong and how he could improve is much more useful than a paper with only a B or C grade on it.

7. A supportive environment is a must. Students,( or anyone for that matter) do not perform or think well when they feel invalidated or threatened. The rapport that parents and teachers develop with the student must be one of ease and comfort-an encouraging word or tone of voice, a hand on the shoulder. These may seem to be trivial but the impact on the learning is great.

In short, when students are treated well, respected, encouraged and the work has meaning high levels of motivation will automatically develop.

Parenting Tips:
How To Improve Student Motivation
By Christina VanGinkel

Motivation is a great thing, IF you have it. Motivation that is lacking can be a huge downfall to an otherwise bright student. Parents "˜can' improve their child's motivation in ways that will encourage them without distracting them from their original goals.

A Happy Child
Not all the motivation in the universe will help a student who is otherwise not happy in their daily surroundings. This is not a directive to give your child anything and everything they ask for” actually, quite the opposite. Children treated with respect and love, usually give respect and love in return. Children raised with values and given guidance on a daily basis, again, learn to use their values wisely. A spoiled child, one who is given "˜things' without any reason other than they asked for it, or more likely, demanded it, do not gain any common sense of how life works; people work for rewards. Making clear here, rewards do not necessarily mean "˜things'! Ask your child what they consider a good outcome of different situations, so you, as the parent, can define in your mind, what your child considers motivational to completing tasks, including homework assignments, special projects, etc. You may be surprised to learn that your child has no clear definition of why they should put effort into their studies.

For instance, many parents' associate "˜motivation' with money, if their child passes a test, they will hand over cash as motivation for the next test. What the child learns in reality, is that if they "˜pass' they are instantly given gratification. Sounds like a workable motivational tool, right. What is wrong with this scenario is simple. That is not how life works. There will not always be someone there throughout your child's life to hand over cash every time "˜they' get it right.

Defining Rewards
Children need to understand that when grownups talk about rewards, they are not necessarily talking about the newest video game or a trip to an amusement park. Reward can simply be the satisfaction of completing a task. If a child has been motivated through physical rewards all through his school life and even before, they need to learn that this is not how life works. You can change how you give motivation, and how your child receives it, it just takes some "˜motivation' and sensibility on your part! Teaching a child that gratification comes from the result of the task done "˜is' the best motivational tool you can use.

As stated earlier, talking to your children to understand how they view rewards as motivation will give you a clear picture of where to start your discussion with them on how you can help them become more motivated in their studies. Talk with them on how an "˜A' that is achievable through study, is motivational by itself over a "˜C' that can simply be achieved from what the student has learned in class. Discuss what they are hoping to become when they reach adulthood. This may sound like common sense, but you may be surprised at how many parents never ask their children this most basic of questions. Once you have asked them this, ask them it again in a few months time. There answer may or may not have changed, but you will be showing your child that you not only are interested, but by asking them this simple question, you are stimulating their thoughts, to keep their goals in mind.

The Reward Breaker
Physical rewards "˜can' be used as motivation, but use them sparingly. If a child has struggled, but has clearly shown effort, a physical "˜unsuspected' reward can be given with positive results. A surprise dinner out to show your child that you appreciate all the hard work they put into passing a class they truly struggled in will show them that you noticed. This works in two ways; a physical reward is given, but it also demonstrates the best motivation any child can receive, their parent's approval.

Dr. Michael Whitley: Motivating students to improve achievement. www.cnn.com
Dr. Michael D. Whitley is a nationally known psychologist specializing in helping children, adolescents, and adults overcome underachievement and discouragement. He is the author of a number of books, including "Bright Minds, Poor Grades". He joined the CNN.com chat room from Chicago.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Michael Whitley, and welcome

DR. MICHAEL WHITLEY: Well, hello out there, parents. I assume most of you are parents, and welcome to the chat on motivating students. I'm a psychologist in Houston, and my specialty is the area of underachievement and student motivation.

CNN: What are some of the motivational problems we see with kids as they go back to school?

WHITLEY: In the beginning of the school year, many students are highly motivated and promise to do better than they have before. You could say that there are no motivational problems. But those problems begin to show up somewhere after the first 3-5 weeks of school, when kids start missing homework assignments, lying about school work, becoming lazy and disinterested in the work, and the grades begin to fall. Parents have to do more and more pushing and nagging to get things done. So, motivational problems usually lead to underachievement and even failure in a classroom. This drives parents crazy, because the kids are usually bright and have good potential.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Whitley, do you see these same motivational issues in children that are home schooled?

WHITLEY: Many children who are home schooled begin that process because they've had moderate to severe motivational problems in school. They just don't get work done. They may show the same problems at home, but the parents have more ability to supervise and push them in home schooling. The difficulty with home schooling, however, for these kinds of kids, is that they are dependent in their functioning anyway, and home schooling tends to promote that. For instance, if kids won't work on their own, home schooling may not solve that problem. The idea of my work is for parents to teach their children to motivate themselves to be successful, which is an inner change in the child. My goal for parents is to change the child, not just the geography or the environment. Where they go to school isn't as important as the child learning how to work consistently, and enjoy that work.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What can be done to motivate children that are given an overabundance of homework everyday?

WHITLEY: I'm not sure what an overabundance of homework is. Kids who are having motivational problems will sometimes turn a 20 minute assignment into a two-hour ordeal. They procrastinate, dawdle through assignments, trying to avoid school work as much as possible. Only in elite schools do we expect three and four hours of homework a night for most kids. Interestingly, well motivated children handle that pretty well. However, I must say this that one of the key skills in developing a work ethic in kids is to teach them how to connect positive feelings with doing ordinary work. Kids with motivational problems constantly connect negative feelings such as boredom and resentment to their school learning and schoolwork throughout the year. The answer is to teach kids how to change their own feelings and become responsible for themselves.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about parents who have the same problem themselves?

WHITLEY: Well, I get that question all the time, and it illustrates that underachievement problems in grade school, junior high and high school are not easily overcome just because you get older. The same techniques that parents apply to their children in school to help them change, parents have applied to themselves. I have letters from parents around the country, or emails from them, saying they use the steps in my book on themselves, and have been able to change their own underachievement trends in their lives, and have become happier. So, it's nice that some parents can use it to improve their own lives and happiness.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is having your children involved in school sports a positive thing for them in relation to their school participation?

WHITLEY: That's a good question. I would say in general, it's good for children to be involved in the extra-curricular activities of school. However, extra-curricular activities are not a substitute for the main goal of school, which is sustained achievement at the child's potential. Good athletes who are poor students are one injury away from having no athletic career. Therefore they must have a strong work ethic when it comes to the classroom as well.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are some fundamental things you think children should begin the school year with that gets them actively involved in school?

WHITLEY: The first thing I think parents should do is have the child list their classes, math, English, science, history, etc., and beside each class, state the goal, the grade, in other words, the child wants to see on his first report card. Few parents, and practically no teachers except those I work with ask their children what they want to make on a report card.

The second step is for parents to get into a daily dialogue about each class with their children. It takes about five minutes. The parents should ask about homework that night, if grades were handed back, if there are tests coming up, if there are tests, what grade the child wants to make on that particular test. And similar questions for class projects.
I would recommend that parents follow up those questions by checking with the school and the teachers. and get the answer to two basic questions from the teacher. First, did my child turn all his homework in this week? That's a yes or no. And two, what test or quiz grades has the teacher handed back this week? This provides the parents with an immediate check on the child's honesty about school issues.

Here's the main problem. If parents can't get good answers, correct answers from their kids, they can't get to the heart and soul of an underachiever's real problem. Those always lie in a child's emotions and feelings, and core level values and thoughts they have about school, which they generally hide from parents like they hide their grades. Once parents confront the lying, and that begins to change, most kids will open up and talk more deeply to their parents about motivational issues, and that's what allows change to occur. Surprisingly, traditional parent motivational techniques like rewards for grades, grounding for grades, tutoring, logic, lectures, or just letting them fail, are not only inadequate for changing unmotivated students, but may even make things worse.

CNN: How can parents keep from being frustrated by children who lack motivation?

WHITLEY: You can't. But what I've found over the years is that parents must have powerful techniques that reach inside the child's mind, and work there, so that the child's communication with the parents about school deepens, the child discloses more about themselves to the parents. In order to do that, parents must swallow a little frustration, and become extremely positive. In my book, I call this the Mr. Rogers technique, patterned after Mr. Rogers on PBS. It's a gentle, kind, but firm insistence on honesty, value and work. Yelling, screaming and punishment will not do to build a strong work ethic in kids. If it did, America would be full of A students, because everyone has tried that. It's not just a philosophical or psychological issue, it's a deeply practical matter. Let's not do things that just don't work.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

WHITLEY: I think that the main focus of my book is for parents who are caring and concerned about their children, who are willing to learn a few new ideas, and apply them and watch their children grow. I think the main thing is for parents to have faith and persistence, and to keep working hard and to fight the battles in raising children today. Even if they lose a few battles, they'll normally end up winning the war, which is to have strong, healthy, competent children who know how to bring a sense of joy to their accomplishments.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Michael Whitley,

WHITLEY: Goodbye!
Dr. Michael Whitley joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Tuesday, August 28, 2001. www.cnn.com

Motivating Students to Learn
By Dr Andrew Martin and Dr Danielle Tracey*

Many parents and teachers have either heard, or indeed used, such words to describe their children and/or their students. Parents and teachers may feel frustrated and helpless when their child or student appears to lack interest in schoolwork. A concern for many parents and teachers is how to motivate students to learn. This may become particularly relevant for older students, students who have difficulty learning or those who have experienced repeated failure. It is important to recognize that a student’s lack of engagement and interest in school may actually be the result of a learning difficulty. To best help these students it is essential that the underlying learning difficulty be addressed rather than simply applying strategies to increase motivation. This is not to say that motivation is not important for these students – their learning difficulty and motivation may both need attention. For this to happen, parents and teachers need to understand motivation and develop some simple strategies that can be readily applied both at home and at school.

What is motivation and why is it important?
A motivated student is one who has the energy and drive to learn, work effectively and achieve at school. Motivation plays a key role in a student’s interest, engagement and enjoyment in school and associated tasks such as homework and study. Motivation also underpins a student’s achievement. As they move through their school years, very few students can succeed on sheer talent alone. Success also takes drive and commitment. When students are motivated they tend to get better marks at school, work more effectively on difficult schoolwork, make the most of their abilities, behave well and enjoy school. On the other hand, if a student is not motivated to learn, they may become disruptive, apply minimal effort and as a result are more likely to perform poorly. In more extreme cases a lack of interest and achievement may lead to truancy and dropping out of school. Moreover, the journey through school may not be a particularly happy one.

Understanding Motivation
There are a number of thoughts and behaviors or Boosters that motivate students and enhance their achievement. There are also a number of thoughts and behaviors or Guzzlers that reduce motivation and achievement. These are presented below. Students improve their motivation by increasing their Booster thoughts and behaviors and reducing their Guzzler thoughts and behaviors.

“He doesn’t pay attention in class”
“She just doesn’t seem to care about school”
“The trouble is he is lazy”
“She just isn’t interested in school”
“He just doesn’t try at all”


Self Belief
Value of Schooling
Learning Focus
Planning and Monitoring
Study Management


Low Control
Failure avoidance
Self Sabotage


Increase motivation boosters Reduce motivation guzzlers

Boosters: What are they and how can parents and teachers help increase them?

Students need to be confident in their ability to do well in their schoolwork. Many students believe they are unable to succeed. It is important for parents and teachers to challenge such thinking. For example if a student says “I’m hopeless, I’m going to fail this geography test”, a parent may respond by asking, “Is that really true? Did you fail your last geography test?” or “What do you think you can do to increase your chances of success on the test?” Parents and teachers can also help redefine what success means and focus on a student’s personal best. For example when a student receives their spelling mark, instead of drawing comparisons with other students’ marks, they could compare it to their own previous mark in spelling.

Value of Schooling
Students are more motivated when they believe that what they learn at school is useful, important and relevant to them or the world in general. At times it may be difficult to make such links. Many parents can probably remember when they were at school asking, “How is algebra going to help me in real life?” To give meaning to school and school subjects, parents and teachers can talk about the many links between school and world events or the student’s life, interests and future career. They can also discuss the skills they learn at school such as social skills, thinking skills and decision-making skills that can help them in other parts of their life.

Learning Focus
Motivated students are focused on learning, solving problems and developing their skills. Teachers and parents assist students’ learning focus by fostering an interest in skill development, learning new things, solving problems or completing a task for the satisfaction of mastery. This requires less emphasis on comparisons with other students. The less students are focused on others around them, the more focused they are on the task at hand. Nicole is a Year 10 student who sees learning as a means to develop her skills. “If I can grasp something by stretching my mind or working really hard on something then I’ve made progression in myself and I’m proud of myself more than being able to do something better than someone else.”

A motivated student is also able to keep working on his or her schoolwork even when that work is difficult or challenging – they are persistent. One way parents and teachers can enhance children’s persistence is by breaking the task into smaller parts. This is called ‘chunking’. For example, completing an assignment can be daunting for many students and they may simply give up or do the fastest job possible. Parents and teachers can help these students by showing them how to break the task down into several steps such as understanding the question, defining key words, gathering books, reading and taking notes, developing an essay plan and so on. Another way parents and teachers can enhance students’ persistence is by drawing on previous challenges they have faced and examining exactly how these challenges were overcome and can be used to help them now. What were they thinking when they ‘hit the wall’ last time? What did they do when they ‘hit the wall’ last time? What lessons can be taken from this to get over, under or around the wall this time? Finally, the goals set by students can increase their persistence. Goals have the potential to provide clear direction and are an action plan when the going gets tough or the student loses his or her way. Most importantly, goals must be effective to boost students’ persistence. Effective goals are achievable, believable, clear and desirable. If students set a goal they cannot possibly achieve, they will probably not be persistent when they encounter difficulty. Instead, they are likely to see it as too hard and give up. Challenging goals are fine, but they must be at a level of challenge that is achievable to the student.

Planning and Monitoring
Motivated students tend to plan their assignments and schoolwork or study. They also keep track of their progress as they do their work. The example of chunking described above is also a good strategy students can use to plan their schoolwork. Developing a plan also assists their ability to monitor their progress as they do that work. Parents and teachers can show students how to check their schoolwork by encouraging checking strategies such as re-reading the question before jumping in and answering it. Dean, a Year 11 student, shows his planning and monitoring skills. “I try to be pretty organized. For an essay I’ll do all the reading and I’ll try and take notes for the readings and I’ll have an essay plan and have a general outline of where I’m going and where the essay’s going. I’m always making sure that it’s on track by looking back at the question.”

Study Management
Motivated students utilize their study time well, organize an effective study timetable and choose and arrange where they study so that they are most able to concentrate and work effectively. Chaos in students’ study or homework environment can reduce their motivation to complete work. There are lots of good books that show students how to develop an effective study timetable, manage time more effectively and prioritize their work.

Guzzlers: What are they and how can parents and teachers help reduce them?

Anxiety refers to the worrying thoughts students have about school and the nervous feeling they get when they think about school. A very low level of anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing and is probably to be expected in our competitive school system. For some students, however, anxiety can escalate to excessive levels and this can reduce their ability to concentrate, pay attention and remember things. Simon describes what this is like. “If I study and think I know everything, when I get in there, I think, ‘Oh, I didn’t look at this and I didn’t look at this either’. I freeze up.” Parents and teachers can help reduce students’ anxiety by showing them some effective relaxation techniques such as meditation or encouraging exercise such as swimming, jogging or walking. They can also teach them some test-taking skills such as doing practice tests, reading instructions carefully, understanding test questions better, staying on track when answering questions, checking answers and sketching essay plans quickly.

Low Control
Motivation is reduced when students are unsure about how to do well or how to avoid doing poorly. This uncertainty can be reduced in class by providing clear objectives and expectations, giving choices over topics that students can complete and giving clear task-based feedback to students about their performance and how to improve next time. It also requires students to focus on the controllable factors in their study life. The two most important ones are effort (how much work they do) and strategy (how they do that work). When they see these are the primary reasons for their marks at school, they have a greater sense of control over their studies. It is also important to reduce their focus on uncontrollable factors such as good or bad luck, getting an easy test or hard test or the teacher liking or disliking them.

Failure Avoidance
Students lack motivation when they are simply completing their schoolwork to avoid doing poorly, disappointing parents or teachers or being seen as ‘dumb’. These students are motivated by their fear of failure. There are two main ways to deal with a fear of failure. First, they need to see that mistakes are important information about how to improve next time and do not mean they are hopeless, useless or that there’s no point trying again. By taking the sting out of failures, students do not live in fear of them. This does not mean students should not care about mistakes. They should care – but care in the sense that failure can be the launch pad to future success. The second way to reduce a fear of failure is to reduce the link between achievement and a student’s worth as a person. When students only feel OK when they achieve, it drastically raises the stakes of every test, assignment and exam. Thus the maths test is not only a test of their maths but also a test of their worth. Is it any reason they fear failure when failure can mean they fail as a person? As parents and teachers we must clearly communicate to students that their worth as a person is a given and must not be confused with their achievement. This does not mean they can’t be disappointed if they don’t do so well – but be disappointed in their lack of study or effort, not disappointed in themselves as a person.

Students who lack motivation may do things that seem to undermine their success at school. They may put off doing their homework or assignment, waste time when they are meant to be studying, not study at all or clown around in class. Why do they do this? The main reason is so they have an alibi in case they don’t do so well. They are therefore able to shift the cause of the poor performance away from their possible lack of ability (one of students’ highest priorities is to protect their ability) and onto a ‘safer’ cause such as procrastination. The reason why students self-sabotage is because they fear failure. To address this, students need to view mistakes as diagnostic information for future improvement and the link between their worth as a person and their achievement needs to be reduced.

Parents experience frustration when their child does not complete homework or study, or performs below their ability. Teachers also experience frustration with a student who does not want to complete work in class, underachieves or becomes disruptive. Increasing students’ motivation is linked to changing problematic behavior and increasing positive thoughts.

Although the set of strategies presented above is by no means exhaustive, it does provide a starting point for parents and teachers to gain greater insight into their students’ motivation and increase helpful and positive thoughts. When we understand the thoughts and behaviors underpinning motivation, we are better equipped to make
children’s learning more rewarding and enjoyable.

*Dr Andrew Martin is a Psychologist and Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the SELF Research Centre, University of Western Sydney. Dr Danielle Tracey is a Psychologist and Director of School Age Services at Learning Links.

Recommended Reading: Motivating Students to Learn by Jere E. Brophy


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