Motivating kids to do schoolwork was hard enough in pre-pandemic times.
No matter how skilled the teacher, and how clever the lesson plans, most kids would find at least some academic work utter drudgery.
Many families are experiencing this drudgery compounded by distance learning compounded by two-plus weeks of sweet, winter break freedom during which nobody asked anyone to answer a math problem on Zoom.
Kids, we need you to motivate. For your own sake, so you can resume your schoolwork without too much struggle or pain. And for your parents’ sake, so we can work, cook, clean, grocery shop and whatever else we need to do during our precious daytime hours instead of making sure you’re paying attention to Zoom school.
If only it were as easy as bribing them with the Halloween candy leftovers. Motivation is a complex mechanism, one that depends on a mix of biological and social factors. Punishments and rewards can help nudge it in the right direction. To really unlock a child’s drive, however, parents need to think beyond simply getting things done.
How motivation works
The brain systems behind motivation are shaped over time, and begin in the early years. Young children need a supportive caregiver to encourage them to take chances and explore, and cheer them on when they find an activity rewarding. Over time, the pleasure a child experiences from overcoming a challenge or indulging a curiosity will reinforce his or her desire to do it over and over again.
A 2018 paper from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explains the brain mechanisms behind this process. It advises parents to start this early, and remember to challenge kids – not too little, and not too much.