School’s out for the foreseeable future and most GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled. The announcement may have caused your child – and maybe even you – to breathe a sigh of relief, but with exclusively remote learning and a lack of direct teacher supervision, you may have noticed their motivation ebbing away. Whether they’ll be progressing onto university, college or a new school year come September, it’s important they have a solid foundation of knowledge they can build on. Furthermore, having focus and a sense of purpose will help their psychological wellbeing in these difficult times. We’ve distilled the wisdom of child behaviour experts and reviewed research on the psychology of motivation to come up with tips that will help restore your teen’s motivation.
1. Stop nagging.
It’s easier said than done. You’re worried about them falling behind and maybe even about their patchy attendance of online classes. When reminding them calmly that they need to study hasn’t worked, you might have resorted to other means of pressuring your teen to do schoolwork: nagging. However, nagging is not only ineffective; it is also counterproductive.
Being nagged is unpleasant and as such, your child will do their best to tune it out. Teenagers often resent nagging parents since it may feel like they are trying to control them – at a time when they value – and long for – independence. Additionally, nagging a child to study results in schoolwork gaining more unpleasant associations, leading to even greater internal resistance to picking up their textbooks. Nagging also sours the home environment, creating a negative atmosphere. Furthermore, if you model such a behaviour, your teenager – or your other children – may pick it up. At a time when home is a site of increased tension, this the last thing you’ll be wanting to happen.
Now that we’ve told you what you shouldn’t do, here’s what you should do…
2. Explore their reluctance to study.
It’s important to remember that your teenager is probably not disengaged because they are lazy. COVID-19 has changed teens’ lives dramatically and may have left them battling a host of unpleasant emotions. The lack of in-person interaction with their friends may have left them feeling depressed and isolated. They may also be struggling with anxiety about themselves or their loved ones catching the virus. Furthermore, educational changes may have resulted in them feeling that schoolwork is unimportant or particularly tedious. No longer are their classes enlivened by small moments of laughter or drama; no longer can they catch their classmates’ enthusiasm about a topic or subject. A teacher’s charisma may have piqued her students’ interest in her subject; on a video call this charisma is likely to be muted. The desire to do well in exams may have been an important source of motivation for your teenager – now that exams have been cancelled, they may feel schoolwork is pointless. The wider chaos may have also made studying seem unimportant.
When you sit your teen down for a chat about their attitude to studying – or broach the topic more casually when you feel the moment is right – it’s important to bear the above in mind. You should approach the conversation with their wellbeing – rather than their grades – as your primary concern. If your teenager can sense that you are ready to really listen, empathise and understand, they will be much more likely to let you in on what is really going on – and much less likely to shut down or become defensive.
Here are some questions you might want to consider:
- Are there particular subjects that they’re struggling to engage with? – Are these the same subjects they were less interested in at school, or is this a new development?
- Do they lack motivation because they feel they’re not making progress, is the problem the difficulty level of the content they’re studying, or are they struggling with motivation and low mood in general?
- Is it the format of the content that is simply not working for them? – Would resources with other formats work better – for example Youtube videos or mind maps?
Once you’ve discovered the cause of their lack of motivation, identifying a solution will be a lot easier. You may need to contact their teachers to discuss the difficulties they are having, you might consider hiring a tutor or, if it is a mood-related problem, you may want to help them get referred to a counselor or mental health specialist. Or maybe the two of you can solve the problem together. Even if there is no easy solution, seeing things from your child’s perspective will help you to be more understanding on days where they are struggling or less productive. It will also put you back on their side – and make daily life less of a battle.
3. Adapt their study schedule to their circadian rhythms.
Basing your teenager’s schedule on their normal school timetable may seem like the obvious thing to do, but it’s not always the most helpful. Research has consistently shown that biological changes beginning in puberty shift wake and sleep times 2–3 hours later – and the older your teen gets, the later they naturally fall asleep and wake up, with ‘peak lateness’ hitting around age 20. In fact, one study showed that for 18 year olds starting the school day at 11am or 12pm was best, resulting in improved mood and better academic performance. So, instead of forcing your teenager to be up and over a textbook at 9am, let them determine when they start work. Having them take the famous Morningness Eveningness questionnaire may help them work out when is best for them to study.
Once they have decided on a schedule, be firm about them sticking to it. As we have discussed, nagging is counterproductive. Instead, you should make it clear that you expect them to observe this schedule and let them know the consequences of them failing to do so. A later study schedule might tempt them to stay up later using technology, which will shift their sleeping patterns further out of sync with the working day – or mean they start on time but sleep-deprived and grouchy. Set clear rules about nighttime technology use, for example, no screen time after 10pm. With a new schedule (and firmly established rules to accompany it), you may well see an improvement in your teenager’s motivation and focus. After all, they will no longer have to overcome biological barriers in order to study – and this may be half the battle.
4. Spark their curiosity
As the writer G. K. Chesterton once said, ‘There are no boring subjects, only disinterested minds’. If your teen is finding a subject or topic particularly tedious, suggest they consider the following questions: ‘Why was this technique or theory developed?’, ‘What problem did it solve?’ ‘How would the world be different today had it not been invented?’ Getting them to see the real-world relevance of a subject is key to sparking their interest in that subject.
If abstractly considering those questions doesn’t really do it for them, you might want to encourage them to apply a subject to real life and have them build a project around that. For example, if it’s plant biology your teen is struggling to sustain and interest in, perhaps they could set up their own plant growing experiment so they can see for themselves how different factors affect the rate of photosynthesis. Maybe they could dissect and label flowers they find in the park. Or, if it’s electricity that’s failing to get them intrigued, have them build a simple circuit. You may even want to leave the nature of the project open to them – and they may appreciate your hands-off approach. Projects are especially suitable for younger teenagers who don’t have a rigid syllabus they must get to grips with in a strict time frame. Once they can see how fundamental a subject is to the world around them, they will likely stop viewing it as ‘useless’ or ‘irrelevant’ and start to engage with it more enthusiastically.
5. Celebrate effort, not academic performance
Online classes and a reduced timetable may have resulted in your teenager feeling like they are falling behind. As a result, they may be feeling anxiety and panic about their schoolwork – they may even be despairing about ever catching up. This may be the cause of their reluctance to work. If this is the case – or if you suspect it to be the case, the last thing you should do is put high expectations on your teenager’s academic performance; it will only make them more anxious and pressurised. Instead, you should stress the importance of a regular study routine – and celebrate when they stick to it.
6. Encourage goal setting (no matter how small)
If one of the causes of their procrastination is a fear that they are falling behind, goal setting might be a way to get them back on track. These goals don’t have to be big – in fact, it’s better if they’re small, as smaller goals are less likely to induce anxiety. The goals they set should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. This will make them much more likely to be achieved.
So, if your teen has an overdue essay they don’t think they can complete, get them to come up with a goal that will get them on track. Maybe they could give themselves 24 hours to write 100 words. Or, if they have five textbook topics to learn, perhaps they could set themselves the goal of reading through one and completing the integrated exercises on that topic. If a content-related goal (such as the comprehension of a topic or the completion of a task) feels too much at the moment, perhaps they could set themselves the goal of studying for a specific amount of time. Setting themselves clear, attainable goals and then achieving them will help them regain their sense of mastery and self-confidence. Both this, and the satisfaction that comes from achieving such goals, may well restore their motivation.
7. Get them teaching
You might consider encouraging your teenager to teach you or their siblings about the topics they are studying. While it simply isn’t feasible to do this for their whole curriculum, it’s a surefire way to boost their motivation for certain subjects – and have them learn more in the process. Learning by teaching others has been repeatedly proven to be extremely effective – so effective that the technique has been dubbed the Protégé Effect. The reason for its effectiveness is that when you are learning something in order to teach others, you tend to learn it more deeply. Anticipating questions, you’re also more likely to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. Furthermore, learning in order to teach gives you a sense of purpose. While you may not find a subject intrinsically interesting, knowing that you will be teaching somebody else about it provides a source of motivation you might otherwise lack.
If your teenagers have younger siblings they can teach, even better! Helping or tutoring their younger siblings may give them an added confidence boost, especially if they can help their sibling to understand a topic they themselves struggled with at that age. Teaching simpler topics will show them how much they know and the confidence they gain may transfer to their own schoolwork – as well as boosting their morale. Whether your teen teaches you or their siblings, their daily lesson will likely result in a marked improvement in their motivation levels.
8. Foster intrinsic motivation
Psychologists have proposed that there are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to do something in order to receive a reward or avoid punishment. For example, wanting to get fit might motivate someone to exercise; wanting to please his/her parents may motivate a child to tidy their room. In contrast, intrinsic motivation is the motivation to engage in a behaviour because you find it rewarding or valuable in itself. You might exercise simply because you enjoy it.
Studies have repeatedly shown that intrinsic motivation is key to better academic performance. Hence, it is important for you to foster a sense of intrinsic motivation in your teenager. Furthermore, if your teenager’s exams have been cancelled, they may have lost an important source of extrinsic motivation: the desire to do well and/or to get the grades that will make themselves and their family proud or which will secure them a place at university, college or sixth form. That lost source of extrinsic motivation needs to be replaced by intrinsic motivation. But how can you foster intrinsic motivation in your teenager? Here are some ideas:
Model intrinsic motivation
If your teenager sees you engaged in an activity for its own sake, they will learn that activities can be rewarding in themselves. It’s even better if you’re modelling a learning or educational activity, such as reading a book, watching a documentary or researching a topic simply because you’re fascinated. While modeling intrinsic motivation is a strategy that works better in the long term, it is very effective.
Talk about intrinsic motivation
Talk about your experiences of accomplishing goals due to your own inner drive – let them know that this type of success is often more fulfilling than success motivated by reward, for example, putting in overtime because you are hoping for a promotion. Again, this is a strategy that works better in the long-term.
Help them enjoy their schoolwork
If your teenager enjoys a subject, their levels of intrinsic motivation will be a lot higher. Helping them to enjoy a subject might involve helping them to see how fundamental it is to the world around them. It might also mean encouraging them to study using formats they enjoy. While the myth of learning styles has been debunked, your teen might gravitate towards YouTube for explanatory videos. They might also want to watch documentaries on the topics they are studying, or when revising use mind maps as well as flashcards and notes. By engaging with a variety of formats, teenagers are less likely to feel bored and subsequently disengage.
Fostering a sense of intrinsic motivation in your teenager is a difficult thing to do – and easier instilled over a long period of time. While it’s not a ‘quick fix’, teaching your teenager the value of intrinsic motivation will leave them in good stead for further study, help them to find their passions and aid them in their future career.
As you’ll know from your experience as a parent, motivation is an elusive thing and difficult to conjure up at the best of times. Maybe you can even relate to how your teenager is feeling; perhaps you too are struggling to self-motivate now you’re working from home or facing additional pandemic-related pressures. Right now, with the world severely disrupted by COVID-19, many exams cancelled and school moved online, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow might feel more substantial than your teenager’s motivation. Nevertheless, we hope this article has given you a starting point to help you help your teen reignite their passion for learning.
This change isn’t going to happen overnight; it’s unlikely you’ll wake up on Monday morning with your teenager raring to start work. Moreover, it’s likely that your teenager will continue to have productive days and unproductive days. This is totally normal – nobody can give their all the whole time. In fact, working intensively for a prolonged period of time is a surefire way to burnout. However, this doesn’t mean you should give up. Establishing a routine and practising good study habits will help your teenager in the future – either at A-level, university, college or during their career. This in turn will ensure their success.