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How Parents Can Motivate Students During Distance Learning

Many children don’t do well in distance learning. They cannot focus, and they’re unmotivated. Here are the reasons why distance learning is not working and how parents can motivate students during distance learning.

Why is Distance Learning Failing?

For many working parents, distance learning is synonymous with stress. Plenty of working parents were stressed out when schools were suddenly closed, and children had to learn at home using only online resources.

It was a bumpy ride and distance learning was to blame.

But it doesn’t have to be the case.

When a child is motivated, they can learn well online and offline.

So why are children less motivated in distance learning?

boy and girl stare at laptop appearing bored. how do you motivate children in distance learning is the question

Why Are Children Not Motivated in Distance Learning?

What is motivation?

Motivation comes from the “reward center” of the brain that releases the neurotransmitter dopamine​1​. Dopamine is the chemical that makes us feel good. It activates and energies our brains.

When we experience a positive reward, the level of dopamine rises, and we’re motivated. When the level of dopamine levels is low, we don’t feel like doing anything.

One of the biggest enemies of dopamine is stress. Stress depletes dopamine in the child’s brain. 

Stress also inhibits the pre-frontal cortex from functioning. Even if you can force a child to sit down and study, they cannot learn because their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, is impaired.

In March of 2020, the world went upside down. Schools were closed, and students jumped into online learning with no preparation. 

It was a very stressful experience for teachers, children, and parents.

On top of that, many parents were stressed about work, working from home, or not having a job at all.

Stress is contagious. When parents are stressed, children often mirrored their stressful reactions​2​.

These two types of stress piled up diminishing your children’s dopamine levels.

It’s not a surprise that many children were unmotivated.

Another source of stress came from the parents and their attempts to control their children’s behavior.

During this crisis, parents were rightfully worried about their kids’ education. Both parents and kids staying at home meant anxious parents could nag and push their children to study throughout the day.

The perception of lack of control is a massive source of stress​3​.

When we constantly nag or “remind” our children about their homework, schoolwork, class schedules, household chores, etc., kids feel a lack of control over their lives. 

Maybe it’s not your intention to control their lives, but it’s their perception that counts.

These three sources of stress together constitute prolonged, uncontrollable stress, also known as toxic stress.

Toxic stress is particularly harmful to developing brains​4​.

Toxic stress elevates the stress hormone levels, killing cells in the hippocampus. Hippocampus is where memories are created and stored – another reason why children under toxic stress have trouble learning.

Are you struggling to help your child focus during distance learning? Check out this online-course:
How to Motivate Kids in Distance Learning

Distance Learning Advice For Working Parents

To motivate children and to release working parents from stress, parents can do the following 6 things.

1. Manage our own stress

Managing our stress levels is good for our health. It’s also good for our children’s mental health.

When we demonstrate positive ways to manage our anxiety, our children learn coping skills to deal with stress, promoting their resilience.

Taking deep breaths, exercising, meditating, and practicing mindfulness can help us manage our stress.

2. Let go of control on our kids

Letting go of controlling our kids is scary.

We want the best for our children. We often control kids’ behavior because we want to steer them away from mistakes.

But our good intention often becomes a source of stress that hurts their motivation and diminishes their ability to learn.

3. Encourage learning, not doing

Have you ever seen an unmotivated baby or toddler?

I haven’t.

Children are born curious and love to learn.

If your child refuses to do homework, focus on learning.

Going to school shouldn’t be about doing homework or getting good grades. It should be about learning.

Grades are important, but to be intrinsically motivated to study, a child needs to enjoy learning.

Encourage them to learn and to use homework to strengthen their knowledge. If they still refuse to do homework, let them face the natural consequences. 

Children learn fast when they face the real, natural consequence. They learn to connect the cause (not doing homework) and effect (consequences in school). 

When you nag or push, the problem shifts to you being a pain. They then focus on fighting with you, which overshadows the real impact of their action.

4. Focus on relationship instead of homework

A warm, secure relationship in childhood is essential to living a happy, successful life.

There is no shortage of stress in a child’s life – teachers, peers, homework, exams, etc.

Many people can stress a child, but only parents can love their child and make them feel safe even when they fail. 

Become your child’s safe haven, a person your kid wants to come to, not one they want to hide away from.

5. Be supportive and teach stress awareness

When a child is not motivated to learn, be supportive instead of contemptuous.

To motivate is to boost their dopamine to a healthy level. Being accusatory will not accomplish that; being supportive will.

Help them identify their source of stress and encourage them to talk about it.

Becoming aware of stress is the first step in managing it. As Dr. Daniel Siegel puts it in The Whole Brain Child, “Name it to tame it.”

6. Provide a stress-free environment

Other ways to eliminate stress include having a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and studying in a relaxed environment.

Motivating children to learn better in distance learning is not that hard if parents can let go of our own security and support our kids to flourish in their own ways.

We cannot hold our kids’ hands forever. The sooner they learn to be independent and responsible for their own education, the more self-motivated they are.


  1. 1.
    Bromberg-Martin ES, Matsumoto M, Hikosaka O. Dopamine in Motivational Control: Rewarding, Aversive, and Alerting. Neuron. Published online December 2010:815-834. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.022
  2. 2.
    Waters SF, West TV, Mendes WB. Stress Contagion. Psychol Sci. Published online January 30, 2014:934-942. doi:10.1177/0956797613518352
  3. 3.
    Oades RD. Dopamine: Go/No-Go motivation versus switching. Behav Brain Sci. Published online June 1999:532-533. doi:10.1017/s0140525x99372046
  4. 4.
    Di Chiara G, Loddo P, Tanda G. Reciprocal changes in prefrontal and limbic dopamine responsiveness to aversive and rewarding stimuli after chronic mild stress: implications for the psychobiology of depression. Biological Psychiatry. Published online December 1999:1624-1633. doi:10.1016/s0006-3223(99)00236-x
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