• 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?

Give your child some choices

All of us thrive when we feel we’re acting of our own volition. Children with learning and attention difficulties are no different. For example, when we offer them a choice between two acceptable alternatives, such as doing either their math or social studies homework first, they feel a sense of control over their own world. This leads to greater pride and self-motivation.

Dr. Mel Levine, author of the set of tapes called Developing Minds, says, “Help children develop a sense of control by presenting things they do not want to do as choices. For example, let a child decide whether to do homework before or after dinner. At school, consider letting a child who dislikes chorus participate in the spring performance by selling tickets.”

Help your child develop persistence

Dr. Stipek reports on experiments that reveal a child’s beliefs about intelligence affect his motivation to succeed. If he believes intelligence is fixed at birth and he missed out, he is liable to quit without trying. If, on the other hand, you help him to understand that persistence is more important than the luck of the draw, you promote a child who can learn to succeed on his own terms. This is the struggling child who changes from saying, “What’s the use?” to “I’ve learned how to slow down and double-check my work.”

Dr. Stipek says, “Emphasize notions of flexible intelligence. Tell your child, in every way you can, that brainpower is something you acquire. Make the following sayings (or their age-appropriate equivalents) your family mantras:

  • “Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”
  • “Geniuses are made, not born.”

Let your child know you love and respect him

Every child needs to feel that his parents are on his side. You can demonstrate your love and respect for your child with learning problems by accepting, connecting, and supporting, no matter what. You still love him, even when he forgets his assignment. You’re interested in the details of each day. And when he’s upset, you help him to give words to feelings.

Respect your child by helping him understand not only his specific learning difficulties, but strategies for coping in school. For example, if your child cannot hold multiplication facts in long-term memory, he may not do well on a standardized math test. He needs both a strategy to practice his math skills and a strategy to take the test. He may need different ways to drill multiplication, such as tactile manipulation of objects, drawing pictures, or saying the tables out loud. He may also need more time on the test.

Help your child identify steps to success

Our culture reveres inborn talent and luck. Unfortunately, that can leave out the child who struggles in school. He begins to believe that no matter how hard he works, school success is outside of his control.

If you help him identify small, concrete steps to reach his learning goals, you can recognize each accomplishment along the way, nor matter how big or small. Then the effort of learning is valued as much as the outcome in school. Help your child learn to set attainable learning goals, such as studying a math concept from a variety of angles until he understands it. This might mean that you must be content with something like a C grade in Math — but an A+ in Effort.

It will be important to communicate regularly with your child’s teacher so all of you (parents, teacher, and child) can work as a united team. With the teacher’s help and ideas, your child’s learning goals will be supported both at school and at home.

You also want your child to learn that making mistakes is a natural part of the process of learning. Thomas Edison, said to have tried 10,000 times to perfect the light bulb, said, “I didn’t fail. I just discovered another way not to invent the electric light bulb.”

Foster long-term motivation

Research tells us that parents who encourage a child’s self-sufficiency often have children who are motivated from the inside, out. This means holding back a little before you jump in to help your struggling child. “Children with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable to developing perceptions of themselves as academically incompetent and to develop low expectations for success,” Dr. Stipek says “In an effort to ensure success we sometimes provide more help than children with learning problems or AD/HD actually need. This takes away from their own pride in accomplishment and the enthusiasm that a sense of achievement and competence can produce.”

Children with learning difficulties often have a marvelous ability to see the world in new ways. When you guide your child to pursue his interests, operate from his strengths, and not shy away from challenges, you help him build a positive cycle of accomplishment and self-motivation. Celebrate each hard-won stumbling step your child takes on the way to learning and developing strengths, so that in the long run, he can sustain his motivation — and passion — for learning.