He's Not Motivated Part II

How we can strengthen our children’s effort and motivation to learn.

Last week, I discussed the problem of a child’s lack of motivation and effort. In today’s post, I will offer five principles for helping children with this common, but often difficult, problem.

When parents ask, “Why isn’t he motivated? Why doesn’t he care?” the answer is almost always, “Because he is discouraged, and it is easier for him to pretend that he doesn’t care.”

Motivation begins with interest. Where there is interest, there is curiosity and a desire to learn, to know more.

1) The solution to the problem of a child’s lack of motivation therefore begins with your enthusiastic interest in your child’s interests—even if these are not the interests you would choose.

If you look hard enough, you will find in your child some interest—and a desire to do well. When I talk with “unmotivated” students, I often find that they are interested in many things (although not in their schoolwork). They may watch the History or Discovery channels, but they will not read a history or science book. Some read National Geographic magazine in my waiting room, but they do not do their homework. Many of these children spend hours searching Web sites when they should be studying. Even more have become addicted to video and computer games, to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.

We may disapprove, but these are their interests.

When I ask children about their interests, they are usually happy to talk. Then, as long as we are respectful and not dismissive, they are usually willing, and often eager, to hear our point of view. They want to know what we think.

Too often, in our understandable effort to help our children “improve,” we neglect this vital aspect of children’s motivation (as my colleagues and I also sometimes do, in our zeal to solve a child’s problems).

2) Find the source of their frustration and discouragement.

When children are discouraged, they often say that they hate school or hate homework. Or that it is “pointless” and irrelevant. We will rarely be able to talk them out of this, no matter how hard we try.

Again, undiagnosed attention and learning disorders are the most common source of discouragement and lack of sustained effort in children and adolescents. It is essential for both parents and teachers to understand the impact of these difficulties. Even mild or moderate attention and learning problems can be a source of anxiety and frustration for children, leading to discouragement, pessimism, and giving up.

Acknowledge their frustration, discouragement, and disappointment. Let them know that you understand their feelings, because we have also been frustrated and discouraged. For young children especially, more than anything else, it may help them to know that we have also had these feelings.

Talking to children about the importance of effort and hard work, however well intentioned and however true, or grounding them for their avoidance of schoolwork, will not help. Children have heard this all before. Telling them that they have to try harder will only make them feel angry and misunderstood.

3) Encouragement, encouragement, encouragement.

Acknowledge every increment of effort and improvement, even when his effort falls far short of our goal, and express confidence in his eventual success. This may be the essence of encouragement: We make note of a child’s improvement and his progress toward goals, not his mistakes.

Our role model should be Dorothy Delay, teacher of Itzak Perlman and other great violinists at the Julliard School. (Delay’s teaching method is described in Carol Dweck’s excellent book, Mindset.) One of Delay’s students recalled a time when he was working to improve his sound. Delay listened patiently until he played a note particularly well. She then commented, “Now that’s a beautiful sound.” She then explained how every note has to have a beautiful beginning, middle and end, leading into the next note. And the student thought, “Wow! If I can do it there, I can do it everywhere.”

Remind them, when they are ready to hear it, of the good things they have done and will be able to do, and that no one succeeds all the time. Help them put this failure—whether it is a social rejection, an academic disappointment, an athletic defeat, or a disappointment in any area of endeavor—in perspective. There will be a next time.

Tell them, “I know that you are feeling frustrated and disappointed right now, but I have confidence in you. I know that if we put our heads together, we can figure out a way to solve this problem, and you will do better next time.”

4) Focus on their strengths.

Help them develop a different picture of themselves. Their strengths should be in the center of the picture; their difficulties and frustrations should be in the corner.

In school, we teach children that it is important to do well in all their classes. In life, however, our success depends much more on doing one thing well.

I recently learned that George Gershwin, as a young boy, was incorrigible, truant, and hyperactive – until he found music. And, of course, so was Babe Ruth—until (and perhaps after) he found baseball.

Even children with significant learning problems demonstrate areas of competence, or qualities of character, that should be a source of inner pride and a foundation for their future success. These strengths need to be recognized and supported.

5) Give him time.

Finally, don’t give up. Solving the problem of motivation will take time. Demoralization has developed over time. It will take time for your child to learn to overcome his pessimism and self-doubt and to let go of cynical and defiant attitudes. Over time, he has become sensitized to disappointments and stuck in moments of frustration. The more that his demoralization has spread, the more that his pessimism and rebellion have become habitual, the more time he will need.

(Originally published on PsychologyToday.com)


  1. Aisling on May 19, 2019 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you for the most helpful advice I’ve found on this topic. So appreciated. Now I have something I can try!

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