How to Motivate a Child or Teen to Do Their Homework

If you're wondering how to motivate your child or teen to do their school work, you're not alone. Many parents struggle with this.

An article on motivation noted how difficult it is to motivate kids to do their school work.

That article describes several approaches for encouraging others to change their behavior:

  • economic incentives - rewards that appeal to self-interest,
  • moral or social incentives - pressure to follow social norms for the common good, and
  • intrinsic incentives - being motivated by one's own inner desires.

Behavioral methods often begin with economic or moral incentives, but ideally culminate with the student learning to work for internal or intrinsic incentives.

Break Large Projects Into Smaller Chunks

When motivating kids, typically a large project must be broken into smaller, attainable steps. Each substep should be short-term, relatively small, and thoroughly doable. Teachers and behavioral therapists often help students create charts that show each of the small tasks that make up a larger process.

Imagine, For example, that your middle school student has not been doing or turning in their homework. You want to encourage your child to get better grades, right?

Your first impulse may be to tell your child that you'll give them $20 for each "A" they get at the end of the semester. Unfortunately, that will set your child up for failure. The desired end result (earning "A"s) is not likely to feel short-term, small, or doable, especially if they do poorly on one or more tests or assignments.

Instead, you may want to use a behavioral approach. Break each task into small enough chunks that each step will be easy for your student to complete. Create with your student a chart showing a row for each day. Each row would have blocks for a daily set of tasks which, depending on the project your child is working on, might include tasks, such as:

  • took my homework and books to school,
  • turned in all of my homework,
  • wrote down the assignments given today,
  • brought the needed books and assignments home,
  • completed assignments for math,
  • completed assignments for English,
  • completed assignments for social studies,
  • packed my homework and books for school,
  • ... and so on.

Each day, or even at several points during the day, you and your child would review the chart and fill in stars for the completed tasks.

If the child isn’t completing one or more tasks in the list, those steps would be broken into still smaller tasks. The goal is to make success nearly inevitable.

Provide Timely Rewards

Also important is that rewards be given close to the completion of a task. Daily rewards are much more likely to be effective than rewards given at the end of the week, month, or semester. This isn't as difficult as it might seem. For some students, getting stars on the chart for each task may be sufficient reward. Some students might be motivated if each star allow them ten minutes of screen time (viewing television, engaging with friends on social media apps, or playing video games). Or, if your student would be motivated by a large final reward, the daily reward could involve you, the parent, entering points in a logbook which tracks how many points your student has earned toward a bicycle or computer.

Most kids will need a daily reminder that they are moving toward the larger goal. Daily successes and rewards help instill in your child the belief that steady effort will help them achieve their goal. Daily rewards also ensure that your child realizes that they will not be able to complete their overall goal in a whirlwind of activity at the end of the semester.

In addition, breaking tasks down into small parts helps your child cope with any failures that occur along the way to the larger goal. Without small steps and daily feedback, your student could easily lose hope of being able to earn the larger reward. If your child passes through a rough patch during the semester, the daily feedback and smaller rewards allow your student to see that they are still capable of getting back on track and thus should continue working toward the larger goal.

When behavioral plans work well, they help children and teens learn that they can succeed when they approach long-term goals in a step-by-step manner. Parents can help their children by providing frequent rewards and by walking their children through the process enough times that it becomes second nature for their children.

If you'd like to have help in creating this kind of success for your child or teen, call or email me for an appointment!