How is your child motivated?

In a school system, students inevitably have to follow the school system of timetabling, planned curriculum, set assignments and so on. For some children this may appropriately fit their learning requirements, but too often this is not the case. Their only motivation may be to please the teacher – or perhaps to get good marks for the sake of their parents. For others, the only motivation may be to beat the other children to first place in the class.

Yet what good does this do long-term? All it teaches children is that learning is not in itself worthwhile unless there is a reward at the end. Home education can give a totally different environment to learning. Children can be free to follow their own interests, and to find their own motivation. For some parents just starting, this can seem rather frightening. Aren’t there things that children OUGHT to know? Don’t parents have to keep their children on track with a curriculum? How can they motivate a child without offering a reward of some kind?

Motivation for toddlers

But think back to your children as toddlers. Did they need any external motivation to learn to talk? Of course not! The drive to communicate was strong, and communication was its own reward. Did they need external motivation to learn to crawl, and then to walk? To explore? Did you have to teach your two-year-old how to ask questions? I doubt it! His ‘reward’ was finding out more knowledge, and a better understanding of how the world works. You didn’t give him stars on a chart for the number of questions he asked. Nor did you insist that he only talked for a set time each day. Learning was his whole delight. The boundary between play and education didn’t exist so far as he was concerned.

When children do not go to school, they tend to retain this love of learning. They keep the desire to find things out, and the enjoyment of discovery. Their motivation is from within, their learning its own reward. When they are free to follow their interests, and encouraged to keep asking questions, then they will ask when they need to know!

Respecting children’s questions

It’s important for parents to respect this need. A child who asks a question wants the answer then and will understand and remember far more than if the topic happens to be introduced in a classroom and he has to fill in a worksheet.

Of course, an older child can be pointed in the direction of encylopedias or the Internet, or given appropriate books to read. He can also wait if the parent is busy with something else. But it’s crucial not to let the learning moments go by, whether it’s during a regular day for home education, or at 10pm on a Saturday night. A child who really wants to learn something is going to do so much more quickly and effectively than a child who has to do something to fit in with other children, or a curriculum, or to please his teachers or parents, or to get a sticker.

At some point your child may decide that qualifications are important, and it’s important to take this seriously. Discuss possible careers with your child. Talk about ways of achieving the qualifications he might need. Some home educated children go to school for the high school years to gain a diploma, some register with an ‘umbrella school’ and can gain it that way. Still others use correspondence courses, or take classes at local colleges or adult education centres. You can read more about possible curricula that can be used as part of home education in the page about the curriculum minefield, or some ideas about taking formal exams on the GCSE page.

But there are others who discover that work experience is more valuable than qualifications for their chosen career, and will find ways of gaining this, perhaps by an apprenticeship, or voluntary work. Others may decide to take a degree course by correspondence, or to go to a vocational college where a portfolio of work is of more value than any qualifications. What is important is that the motivation to learn comes from the child, rather than some need to gain qualifications for their own sake.

Motivation can over-ride boredom and frustration

Of course, not all work is enjoyable. It could be that your child decides on a course of study, as preparation for a future career, and quickly becomes bored or frustrated. But if the motivation has come from within, there should be a goal to aim for; unless there are serious problems, he will probably work through the boredom for the sake of the eventual goal. This can be good preparation for adult life, when they may frequently need to do chores or work which are not innately appealing – such as laundry – in order to gain something for which they are motived, such as clean clothes!

When the child has spent the pre-teen years discovering the joy of learning, free to ask questions and follow his own interests entirely, it is a natural step to realising that some interests require depth of study which may be tedious, or difficult. Parents should never push their children into study, although reminders may be useful and assistance in making plans for assignments or revision for courses with a time-limit.

External motivation – on occasion

Obviously there are times in adult life when we work for external motivation – such as a paycheque! There’s no reason why our teenage children shouldn’t, at times, agree to particular jobs such as babysitting or mowing the lawn, for which we pay them. They should expect to take a normal part of family life and chores, appropriate to age. But if there are jobs which we might pay someone else to do, you could offer them to your children instead, if they are capable and willing.

If they can find something to do which they also enjoy, so much the better. This is good experience preparing them for the world of work. There is no hard-and-fast rule, however. As our children grow up they will inevitably find times when motivation is at least partly from outside. But I would encourage everyone to take every opportunity to encourage their children’s internal motivation. Then you can help them to see education and learning as an exciting, life-long adventure.

Further reading:

What is education?
Learning styles
Science and teens