Here’s the brutal truth about how to motivate kids to study – not all motivations are created equal. Most parenting methods such as rules, consequences, and rewards don’t work because they create the wrong kind of motivation. Find out what motivates your child and how to effectively motivate them using 7 backed-by-research steps.
What Type Of Motivation Does Your Child Have
Motivation is the reason that underlines a child’s behavior.
There are two main types of motivation for kids: intrinsic and extrinsic.
- Intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for its inherent enjoyment.
- Extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity, not for its inherent enjoyment but instead for a separable outcome.
Although these two types of motivations may result in similar behavior, there are differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in terms of qualities and sustainability of the behavior.
Studies have shown that when people engage in an activity out of intrinsic motivation, the quality of engagement and the results are both better1.
In one study at the University of Rochester, researchers asked a group of undergraduate students to read an article and then record their emotions reading it. One week later, they tested the students’ ability to recall the information. Students who found the article interesting or enjoyable scored better than other students who didn’t in recalling and comprehending the information, even after accounting for their differences in verbal aptitude.2
What Motivates Your Child And What Does Not
So, what motivates a child?
When it comes to motivating our kids, many parents use the “carrot and stick” approach, i.e. rules, consequences, rewards, or behavior charts.
Many people find quick success at the beginning, but it stops working after a while.
Even worse, sometimes it backfires.
Here is why…
When children are responding to the “carrot and stick”, they are acting on extrinsic motivation.
We’ve already seen that the quality of behavior resulting from the extrinsic drive is not as good as intrinsic.
On top of that, you have to keep using the carrot and stick for the desired behavior to continue.
That is simply not sustainable in the long term.
But there is a third reason why this is not an effective way to motivate…
Using carrots and sticks actually reduces a child’s intrinsic motivation, if there is any at the beginning.
Many studies have shown that when a reward (e.g. ice cream or video games) or a controlling factor (e.g. punishment or privilege removal) is introduced, a person’s intrinsic drive decreases.1
In other words, if your child has some interest in an activity at the beginning, your carrot-and-stick “motivation” actually reduces your child’s intrinsic motivation.
A child has to enjoy an activity to be intrinsically motivated.
External rewards, praises, and punishment will not inspire a child’s interests to develop intrinsically.
It does the exact opposite.
Does that mean that our hands are tied and there is nothing we can do?
Not really. There is A LOT we can do to help our children succeed.
How To Use Extrinsic Motivation
If your child is not intrinsically motivated enough, we have to work with their extrinsic motivation.
Fortunately, not all extrinsic motivations are bad.
There are four types of extrinsic motivation. They lie on a spectrum of autonomy, from the least autonomous (externally regulated) to the most autonomous (integrated).
Among these four extrinsic motivations, integrated motivation is the most desirable form of motivation.
When people have fully identified and assimilated a cause to themselves, they develop integrated motivation.
So what does that mean?
That means a person has examined the cause and found it matches their own values and needs. They can then internalize a cause and have self-drive.
Because integrated motivation has many similar qualities as intrinsic motivation, helping children internalize a behavior is a great way to inspire internal motivation.
How To Motivate A Child To Study – 7 Science-backed Steps
1. Stop trying to motivate (the traditional way)
Your attempts to motivate your child to learn are most likely doing the exact opposite — demotivating your child.
To be intrinsically motivated is to enjoy an activity on its own.
If someone doesn’t enjoy an activity, no amount of pushing, bribing, or threatening can make them start to like it. It will only create a power struggle.
So the traditional ways to deal with a child’s lack of motivation — rewarding, praising, nagging, scolding, and punishing — are counterproductive.
Therefore, the best approach is to stop using these external factors to motivate.
2. Help them enjoy instead of controlling
Rewarding, praising, nagging, scolding, and negative consequences are ways to control someone’s behavior.
Allow your child the freedom to take initiative. Having autonomy is an essential condition for intrinsic or integrated motivation to develop3.
To help an unmotivated kid develop the right motivation, aim to inspire, not to control.
Note: Giving children options is just another way to control them. It may work on young children, but not on older kids.
The best approach is to show them how they can enjoy it in different ways.
- Show children that learning a new skill and mastering it is fun.
- Create a learning environment instead of a doing work situation. We learn to acquire new knowledge, not just to complete homework or get a good grade.
- Pique their curiosity in a new subjects by showing them the different uses of it.
- Let them choose activities according to the child’s interests without pressure.
- Celebrate success milestones together (but do not over-praise or praise conditionally).
- Support kids by providing constructive feedback, not criticism, that can enhance a sense of competence.
- When children are stuck at a problem, help them view it as a “challenge they can conquer”, not a “difficulty they need to overcome”.
- Do not refer to the activity as “children’s job”.
- Do not use a break from the activity, such as “No school work”, as a reward.
3. Help them internalize the importance
Some activities do not lend themselves well to enjoyment. If that’s the case, help your child develop integrated motivation.
Help them identify why an activity is important and help them internalize the need for it.
Children must grasp the meaning and worth of doing something to fully internalize it.
For example, training for soccer can be hard at times. But practicing is a critical and necessary part of becoming good at it. Help your child understand that if they want better results in soccer, they must practice even though it is not always enjoyable.
4. Help them decide and let them decide
Autonomy is crucial in creating intrinsic motivation or integrated motivation. Children have to make their own decisions to feel a sense of autonomy, a vital intrinsic motivator4.
Most people are afraid that if they let their children make their own decisions, kids will inevitably make the wrong ones and fail.
Falling is an inevitable part of learning to walk. Making wrong decisions is an inevitable and important part of learning to make good decisions.
Give children opportunities to practice decision-making. If the activity is not health or safety-related, let them decide, with your guidance. Let them face the natural consequence.
For example, if a child refuses to do his homework, even after you explain the importance of it, let him face the consequence in school.
If the activity is not health or safety-related but you have a strong desire for your child to do it, it is important to understand why.
There are things children must do, such as going to school, which is not negotiable. But there are things only we believe children must do, but they actually don’t have to.
Children are not meant to live our lives. Just because we regret not playing the flute when we were kids doesn’t mean our children need to fulfill our dreams. Our kids have their own lives and their own dreams to pursue.
5. Find an optimal challenge
One of the best ways to inspire intrinsic motivation is to help kids enjoy feelings of accomplishment.
If an activity is too easy, a child will feel bored quickly. But if an activity is too hard, a child will feel discouraged or have self-doubt.
An optimal challenge is one that is slightly more difficult than what a child has already mastered, but is still achievable through practice and some hard work.
It is also important to help children gain a growth mindset.
Children develop a growth mindset when they believe that talent is not fixed, but malleable. Skills and mastery can improve through practice and hard work.
Let them know that the process of practicing and working through problems is what matters. Help and encourage them to practice.
When they finally master a new skill, that sense of competence will generate positive energy and become a significant internal motivator, setting their path to success.
6. Grow relatedness through authoritative parenting
Even if a child does not like an activity, they may engage in it if others they feel connected to value it.
Science tells us that a sense of belonging and relatedness can promote internalization5. The emotional and personal bonds we form with others are great motivators.
If a child feels connected to someone who values a cause, they are more likely to internalize that value.
The importance of relatedness has been extensively studied in education due to its significance in students’ performance. In the classroom, when students feel respected and cared for by the teacher, they are more motivated to learn.6
Parents play an important role in motivating kids. When you have bonded with your child, they are much more likely to listen to you, adopt your values, and become motivated if it is something that is important to you.
So how do you bond effectively with your child?
Studies show that parents who adopt an authoritative parenting style bond with their children more. These are parents are warm and responsive to their children’s needs. They have high standards and set limits for their kids.
Psychologists find that authoritative parents create an autonomy-supportive environment that can increase their children’s self-regulation and motivation in classrooms.7
An autonomy-supportive environment is one in which parents value autonomy in their children. They encourage kids to choose and participate in solving problems. The home climate is democratic rather than autocratic.
7. Get involved
Another way to promote relatedness is to get involved in the activity. Having the whole family participate shows how much they value it.
One of the most reliable predictors of children’s school performance is the level of parental involvement in their kids’ learning process.8,9
For instance, in sports, you can coach or watch their games. During the school year, you can volunteer in the class. Get involved in their learning activities such as reading. Have a designated family reading time every night and you can bond at the same time.
Final thoughts on what motivates your child
Positive reinforcement is not always bad. Sometimes, we just want to give our young kids something to celebrate accomplishments. The important thing is not using it as a contingency, i.e. if you do this, then you get this. Any extrinsic rewards should be unexpected, offered only after the activity finishes, and not routinely given (because then your child will start to expect them). You can also offer praise, positive feedback, or improvement suggestions in place of tangible rewards. All of these can motivate your child for future tasks.
Once your child starts developing motivation, setting goals can help them increase their internal drive and give them a plan to follow.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
- 1.Scott Rigby C, Deci EL, Patrick BC, Ryan RM. Beyond the intrinsic-extrinsic dichotomy: Self-determination in motivation and learning. Motiv Emot. 1992;16(3):165-185. doi:10.1007/bf00991650
- 2.Ryan RM, Connell JP, Plant RW. Emotions in nondirected text learning. Learning and Individual Differences. Published online January 1990:1-17. doi:10.1016/1041-6080(90)90014-8
- 3.Grolnick WS, Ryan RM. Autonomy in children’s learning: An experimental and individual difference investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987;52(5):890-898. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.520
- 4.Zuckerman M, Porac J, Lathin D, Deci EL. On the Importance of Self-Determination for Intrinsically-Motivated Behavior. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 1978;4(3):443-446. doi:10.1177/014616727800400317
- 5.Ryan R, Deci E. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2000;25(1):54-67. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10620381
- 6.Ryan RM, Powelson CL. Autonomy and Relatedness as Fundamental to Motivation and Education. The Journal of Experimental Education. 1991;60(1):49-66. doi:10.1080/00220973.1991.10806579
- 7.Grolnick WS, Ryan RM. Parent styles associated with children’s self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online 1989:143-154. doi:10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.206
- 8.Griffith J. Relation of Parental Involvement, Empowerment, and School Traits to Student Academic Performance. The Journal of Educational Research. Published online September 1996:33-41. doi:10.1080/00220671.1996.9944441
- 9.Jeynes WH. The Relationship Between Parental Involvement and Urban Secondary School Student Academic Achievement. Urban Education. Published online January 2007:82-110. doi:10.1177/0042085906293818