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How to Rekindle Your Kid’s Love of Learning When Motivation Wanes

Does your child love to learn?

Or has he stopped caring?

Most young children possess an intrinsic love of learning. They dive into their play, eager to challenge themselves, driven by the joy of discovery. But when they enter school, expectations and rules increase, and their interests and curiosity may take a back seat. Success becomes entangled in grades and test scores rather than creativity and new adventures.

Their love of learning may seem to vanish overnight.

As a psychologist, I have witnessed the apathy and hopelessness children feel when they have lost their creative spark – and how this can linger beyond high school. Researcher Beth Hennessey has identified intrinsic motivation as an essential component in creative expression. She has commented on how traditional schools often abandon creativity in the service of expedience and formal instruction:

“In their present form, the majority of American classrooms, from preschools through high schools and colleges, are fraught with killers of intrinsic interest and creativity.”

Once motivation wanes, parents and teachers sometimes resort to praise and extrinsic rewards in an effort to rekindle enthusiasm. Yet, self-esteem-building initiatives – such as trophies distributed for essentially just showing up – tend to backfire. Many children (and adults) require an inordinate amount of praise, refuse to take risks, and never learn that failure can be a character- and skills-building experience. They expect praise for minimal effort, and lose their drive to excel.

Our society often focuses on outward markers of success, and especially on the stand-outs – famous athletes, America’s Got Talent winners, the Bill Gates’ and Mark Zuckerbergs. In a culture that glamorizes achievement, it is easy to forget that many of these successful folks reached their goals through passion and dedication. Not from star charts, trophies, and assembly awards. Intrinsic motivation (coupled with a generous sprinkling of raw talent) drove their focus – not rote praise or striving to please others.

A meta-analysis of studies comparing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation found that rewards can actually hamper intrinsic motivation. One study even highlighted the undermining effect of extrinsic rewards on brain functioning as well as behavior. An interview with growth mindset advocate Carol Dweck also cautions that too much praise can sap a child’s motivation and instill feelings of insecurity.

So, how do you rekindle your child’s love of learning?

1 | Encourage autonomy

Even at a young age, children benefit from learning to trust their own instincts and reasoning ability. They can master this further by understanding how they make decisions. Encourage your child to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, outline strategies, and ask herself meaningful questions. If she makes a mistake, ask her to review what happened and to brainstorm alternative solutions. Carefully and compassionately helping her to understand what went right and what went wrong in any endeavor is key to mastering future challenges.

2 | Help your child set realistic, fun, and challenging goals

Helping your child identify and set a meaningful, challenging goal that he can work toward and eventually achieve will build resilience and true confidence. It is also a lot easier when the goal is both challenging and fun. Help him “find the fun” in any task – even rote and boring assignments. This might involve finding creative, innovative solutions, attempting to complete a task more quickly each time, composing a song about the assignment, or drawing pictures that describe it. Direct him toward “realistic” goals, though, and help him regroup and devise new strategies when he encounters setbacks.

3 | Encourage activities that provide optimal stimulation and control

In one study, Middleton and colleagues found that intrinsically motivated students showed interest in a task if they felt a sense of personal control and if it seemed stimulating and challenging. If either of these conditions were not present, intrinsic motivation waned. Creativity and challenge are critical components to keeping your child invested in learning. School can be boring for everyone – at least some of the time. But the more we encourage challenging and stimulating outlets for our children, the more they will discover what ignites their passion for learning – regardless of what may unfold in the classroom.

Expensive extracurricular activities are nice, but not always necessary. Any activity – cooking, chess, gardening, bug collecting, finger painting – can be a learning adventure. And encourage your child to seek out what is challenging within the classroom. Asserting her interests, when appropriate, may offer her some sense of personal control at school.

4 | Praise your child’s efforts – not just accomplishments

Support any attempts to work hard, try something new, and take risks. Dweck suggests complimenting the “process” your child uses to get results rather than innate abilities. This can include working hard, trying out various strategies, learning from mistakes, staying focused, and showing improvement. Yet, it is important to focus on what is truly praise-worthy. Most children know when their efforts deserve recognition. Many feel uncomfortable when praised for something that comes too easily. So let him know when you are truly proud of his efforts, but hold the praise when it seems forced and unnecessary.

5 | Create a “no-shame” zone where mistakes are welcome

Creativity and passion for learning come to a screeching halt when children believe that their efforts will be criticized or belittled. Everyone struggles the first time they learn something new. Some children are very self-critical and feel shame over even the slightest misstep – and your reactions to your child’s efforts have an impact. Even well-meaning laughter over her “adorable” attempts at a new task can evoke feelings of embarrassment. For some children, academic problems are not due to learning difficulties, but self-doubt, fear of failure, and a refusal to take risks. Role model graciously handling your own errors, encourage learning from mistakes, and help your child problem-solve how to grow and learn from new experiences.

Many children lose their intrinsic love of learning once they start school. The spark of joy that energized their play seems to disappear as they adapt to classroom structure and rote homework assignments. As a parent, you can advocate for changes at school. However, your child will gain the most from you as you role model enthusiasm for learning, and offer encouragement and support for his curiosity, academic risk-taking, and creativity.

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