How to motivate kids to succeed in school

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Parents, put away your wallets. Money and gifts won't pave the way to academic success, according to parenting experts.

Teaching self-motivation and pride in a job well done is a better route to good grades, they said.

By promising a child a toy or prize for academic success, you're training him or her to look forward to receiving the toy - not earning a good grade, said David Lowenstein, a Columbus psychologist. "You want to make [kids] feel good about themselves and what they're learning," he said.

Kelley Schubert, executive consultant for the Ohio School Counselors' Associa-tion in Doylestown, agreed. "I don't feel [offering money or prizes] is the best way for a child to be motivated," she said. "The outcome isn't really connected to the learning."

Baiting kids with gifts or money also may cause them to cheat in order to get the prize, said Rashaun C. James, owner of Mrs. James' Learning Club, a local tutoring company. "If you tell children, 'Okay, if you pass this test, you get ice cream,' they may cheat or do whatever they have to do to get that ice cream," the Columbus City Schools teacher said. "The child may grow up never getting the satisfaction of doing a great job."

Parents need to help their children learn to take pleasure in their school successes. Self-satisfaction can be a powerful motivator, the experts said. The best way to motivate children to do well in school is to let them know you value education, help them set attainable goals, and create an atmosphere in the home that is conducive to academic success.

It's okay to celebrate good grades as long as you approach it the right way, the experts said.

Children are far more likely to succeed in school if they know their parents consider education important. "Parents play a pivotal role in a child's academic success," said Schubert, who works for the New Albany-Plain Local School District.

Parents can show their commitment by checking assignments, helping kids relate their schoolwork to the real world and attending school functions. School websites and teachers' e-mail or web pages make it easy for parents to stay on top of assignments. If the teacher doesn't post work online, ask him or her to e-mail assignments to you.

Parents also can show their support by asking to see graded homework papers and tests, and offering to go over materials with their children. It's a good idea to regularly review your student's assignment notebook and homework.

Once you know what your child is working on, talk about it over dinner or in the car, added Suzanne Palmer, a mother of two boys.

Find ways to incorporate lessons into everyday life, said Palmer, who also serves as the gifted coordinator for Westerville City Schools. This reiterates the value of what kids are learning in school. "We have discussions with the kids at the dinner table," she said. "We try to use real-life experiences so they see the benefits. It does have an impact - them seeing us taking that interest."

Attending conferences and open houses also sends a clear message that you think school is important. Another important role parents have is helping children set reachable goals. Not every child can earn straight As, and it's not fair to let one strive for an unattainable goal, Lowenstein said. If the goal is too high, a child might give up, he said.

Talk to kids about what they want to improve on from the previous year in school, and follow up with questions, suggested Schubert. Say things like, "You really want to do well this year, so tell me more about that," she said.

Through conversations with your child, you can create a list of goals that suit the child's abilities.

It's helpful to break tasks down into small steps so children can experience success throughout the process, Palmer said. She finds that meeting goals - even simple ones - motivates children to keep working hard.

Praising kids for success along the way helps them develop a love of learning, Schubert said. It also prevents them from developing a fear of failure. Too much focus on outcomes can "lead anyone to feel fearful that they might not stack up," she said.

Giving children specific feedback can help them achieve their goals, Schubert said. Drawing links between a job well done and the amount of time spent on the assignment or the way it was organized helps children with future work.

Parents need to do more than just motivate their kids to perform well. They also need to provide them with a place to do homework, study for tests and complete projects. The right environment is crucial to academic success, James said.

She recommends setting aside a place that has the necessary tools - art supplies, glue, pencils - to do homework and projects. She also encourages parents to schedule a time for homework, usually immediately after school or after dinner. If you let kids do homework "whenever they get around to it," it sends a message that it's "not that important," she said.

Although James discourages parents from "bribing" kids to do well in school, she does encourage moms and dads to celebrate their children's successes. When they do well, "make a big deal about it," she said, especially if they've exceeded the goals they've set. She suggests offering an unexpected treat like letting them stay up an hour later or picking a movie for the family to watch. The bottom line is, "you're supposed to get good grades in school," she said. "But you can congratulate them."

Lowenstein recommends hanging papers on the refrigerator, telling grandparents about academic successes and giving lots of praise. Those things will make children feel good about what they've accomplished and help them become more self-motivated.

"It's really great to celebrate doing better," he said. "It's really positive for the kids to think about things that are pleasurable [to them] - more than things parents are hoping kids will do."

Melissa Kossler Dutton has worked as a reporter for more than a decade. She's a frequent contributor to a variety of Ohio publications. She lives in Bexley with her husband and two sons.

Tips from the experts:

  • Never call a child names such as dummy or stupid. Name-calling destroys self esteem.
  • Always be involved in your child's academic career.
  • Never wait until report card time to find out how your child is doing.
  • Always maintain an open line of communication with your child's teacher.
  • Never discourage a child.
  • Always try to be a coach or facilitator in your child's educational journey.