Fostering Motivation in Kids With Learning and Attention Problems
Learn how to help kids sustain the joy of learning for its own sake in the face of their struggles and frustrations.
By Robbie Fanning, M.A.
- Steven is 11 and in the fifth grade. His reading problem causes him to read haltingly. On the day he knows he'll be asked to read out loud at school, he develops a stomachache.
- Maria, age 9, is in the third grade. Her visual perception and fine motor problems interfere with her handwriting, so it takes her an hour to finish one worksheet at night, let alone two or three. The teacher asks her to write more legibly, but she's doing the best she can. She's losing interest in school.
- John is 10, is in the fourth grade, and has been diagnosed as having AD/HD. His schoolwork is fine - when he remembers to bring books home and to turn in his assignments. The teacher says he's "unmotivated."
The truth is that none of these children is "unmotivated." In fact, they're highly motivated - to avoid public humiliation or failure.
While children with learning problems must work hard to do well in school, not all struggle emotionally. Why is one child motivated and another gives up before he tries?
What Dampens Motivation?
Much research has been done over the years on motivating children with learning disabilities (LD) or AD/HD. It tells us that the main reasons these children withdraw mentally from school is fear of failure, frustration with inconsistent performance (good one day, stumbling the next), lack of understanding the schoolwork, emotional problems, anger, or desire for attention - even negative attention.
The behavior that accompanies this dampened motivation may range from quitting ("school is boring"), avoiding any attempt ("I'm stupid; why try?"), clowning (for attention), denying ("I don't care about English"), being impulsive ("There! I'm done!"), or bullying (picking on someone smaller).
We also know that of the brain's various learning systems, if the emotional system is in turmoil, the cognitive system must expend energy on it before the brain can focus to learn. This means you must help your child talk about his feelings before you can figure out how to motivate him to do math or to write essays. Help him to see the pattern of his behavior and to understand why he doesn't feel motivated to succeed at school.
What Fires Motivation?
Babies are born with an inherent drive to learn. Your challenge as the parent of a child with learning or attention problems is to help him build what Drs. Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein (Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child) call "islands of competence," to offset the frustrations and low self-esteem that can result from his learning struggles. The goal is to find subjects or activities where he is self-motivated to learn, enjoys the process of learning, and sees the value of what he learns.
Deborah Stipek, Ph.D, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, is an expert in the subject of motivation in young children. She's also a mother, so her latest book, Motivated Minds/Raising Children to Love Learning, is full of practical advice.
Dr. Stipek says kids will be self-motivated to learn when they:
- Feel competent about something
- Have some choice and control over their learning
- Believe that intelligence isn't fixed at birth
- Feel loved and respected by their parents
Help Your Child Discover His Passions
One way to build a sense of competence in your child is to encourage his passions. There's an academic payoff to building competence this way. Dr. Stipek says, "The good news may seem paradoxical: research has shown that the indirect strategy of helping your child enjoy learning and see its value is the best way to improve your child's grades and raise his test scores."
If your child has a particular strength in school, such as being a math whiz, find ways outside of school to expose him to math in the real world - computers, hands-on science museums, and math camps.
If he struggles with most school subjects, look elsewhere for his passions. Pay attention to whatever makes your child perk up. Is it animals? Plants? Music? Art? Dinosaurs? Video games? Skateboards?
To play on these passions, help your child deepen his knowledge. For example, if your Internet provider allows you space for a family website, let the child help build one on his favorite subject. He could research and write about the foremost skateboard athletes in the world. Post his drawings of himself skateboarding the galaxy. List unanswered questions about skateboards. Let family and friends interact with the website, too - what else would they like to know from your in-house skateboard expert?