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How to Motivate Your Child: Tips for Teaching Self-Motivation

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Self-motivation is the internal push to pursue goals and finish tasks without relying on others. It’s when you do something because you really want to get it done. This skill is priceless to learn and critical to success throughout life. It’s the key to leading a happy and fulfilling life. 

As parents, we can help teach our children how to be self-motivated. Self motivation can not only help kids thrive at school, like completing homework, but will also help them achieve their goals as they grow up. 

There are many things you can do to foster this internal motivation, and we’ve gathered together our favorite tips just for you.

Signs of an unmotivated child

Before you can help a child learn self-motivation, you need to understand where that lack of motivation comes from. 

If your child is unmotivated, it doesn’t mean they need to be disciplined or are destined to be a bad student. It’s more likely your child doesn’t find enjoyment in the activity or possibly has a fear of failure.

Some signs of an unmotivated child include:

  • Lack of focus
  • Slipping grades
  • Making excuses to skip school
  • Difficulty completing school work
  • A change in your child’s behavior or mood, especially at school 

Sometimes these behaviors can actually be caused by other conditions such as mental health issues, burnout, or ADHD. These more serious issues should be ruled out before using the tips below.

But if your child is otherwise healthy and happy, read on for a few ways you can help them find their self-motivation. 

7 Tips for motivating children: nurturing your child’s intrinsic motivation

1. Set goals together

It’s best to focus on a mix of both short-term goals and long-term goals. Begin by brainstorming a list of goals that your child has. Then break them into daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. 

These can be homework or educational goals, sports goals, or social goals. And be sure to include some fun, personal goals (like reaching the next level in a video game or finishing their favorite book series). 

Then, for each goal, discuss how they’re going to achieve it. What are the steps your child needs to take? What help might they need to get there? Breaking down bigger goals into digestible steps is a crucial part of goal-setting.

Though this process may seem tedious, you’re teaching valuable skills. Your child will likely need your help the first few times you do this exercise. But once they’ve practiced goal-setting, they can do it more independently. Before you know it, they’ll know how to take a task, split it into manageable steps, and accomplish it without your help.

Did you know?

If your child has a Prodigy Math Membership, you can use your parent account to set learning goals for them to achieve as they play our online math game.

The best bit? Every time they complete a goal, they'll also get a special in-game reward!

See how it works

2. Encourage your child’s curiosity

When you're setting goals with your child, some of them may not be so fun. These might involve getting ready for school each day or cleaning their room once a week. And while these are necessary, you want to mix in some fun goals as well. Ones that line up with their interests.

Encourage your child to set goals around a new hobby or topic that excites them. As they practice self-motivation while doing the tasks they enjoy, they’ll be learning the skills they need to complete the less fun tasks as well. 

3. Use positive reinforcement

A kind word goes much further in motivating than a negative one. Especially when children are trying to complete a difficult goal, a negative comment can be discouraging. 

The trick is to identify the difference between positive reinforcement and the extrinsic motivation of your praise. A good rule of thumb is that positive reinforcement comes after the child has formulated a plan and achieved some part of it. 

For example, instead of talking about how proud you are of their good grades, remind them that they should feel proud of all they’ve accomplished. Recognize their hard work, not just the outcome.

Your positive reinforcement should help them feel good, but it shouldn’t be so intense that they continue their goals only to get more positive attention from you. 

4. Give your child autonomy 

The world is full of natural consequences both good and bad. Your child has likely already experienced many of these. 

They learned not to jump off the stairs from too high because they did it once and it hurt their feet. They learned not to touch the stove because it burned. Or maybe they skipped studying for a test and made a disappointing grade.

As your child grows, they’ll discover their actions have consequences in school and life. There are social consequences to interactions they have with their peers. There are academic consequences as they choose to either study hard or slack off. 

Consequences are not bad — they’re simply the result of an action or choice. When it’s safe and appropriate, allow your child to experience and learn from the natural consequences of their actions. This will not only make them feel more motivated to make better choices, but it will also help grow their sense of responsibility.

5. Support your child’s interests 

When your child sets goals to pursue things they love, show interest. Ask questions and bring their passions up in conversation often to check in on their progress. Even if you don’t understand their love for it, try not to make their interests feel unimportant.

Remember, every goal is more fun when you have someone alongside you, rooting for your success. It’s totally possible to show interest and encourage them without being the source of their motivation. 

6. Build up your child’s self-confidence 

Every goal your child ticks off their list will grow their self-esteem. For children who struggle with self-confidence, it may be best to start with small tasks. Lots of little victories when they first start out will help give them the confidence needed to conquer bigger challenges. 

Positive affirmations can be a great way to help your child build their confidence. A growth mindset doesn't come easily to everyone, especially young perfectionists. But with a little extra work and smart goal-setting, your child’s confidence can really bloom. 

7. Remind them that failure is no big deal 

It’s important for both of you to keep in mind that self-motivation is a new skill. And just like reading or riding a bike, it will take time and practice to learn how to do it. And then it will take even more time to master it.

Have patience during the process. Remind them that even if they fail and miss some of their goals, there’s a lesson to be learned. Spur them on with the knowledge that they’re strong enough to try again and again until they get it right. They just haven’t accomplished it yet.

The importance of developing a growth mindset as a child

Our mindsets are so powerful. The outlook you have and the beliefs you hold shape your life decisions in immeasurable ways. 

Helping your child develop a growth mindset early in life can have a direct impact on their present and future success. It can determine how they see the world, themselves, and their potential. And it can be a real driver for self-motivation.

A growth mindset helps your child realize anything is possible with enough dedication and hard work. It reminds them when they fail that they’re capable of overcoming challenges. And this mindset can help them find the self-motivation they need to always be improving.  

It’s easy to see how this mindset can translate into a fulfilling life. Career success is more likely and personal relationships are better served when you're always trying to improve yourself. A person can truly find and achieve their purpose in life with a growth mindset. 

What to avoid when trying to motivate your child

Don’t make these mistakes when helping your child learn self-motivation.

Having unrealistic expectations 

Don’t expect your child to master this skill overnight. Set realistic expectations and plan to help them take small, measurable steps in the right direction over time. 

Focusing on past performance 

Your child is going to mess up a time or two…or ten. That’s just a part of life. Don’t hold onto their past failures. And on the flip side, remember that success one day does not necessarily mean they’ll have success every day after.

Using criticism and disappointment to motivate

Tell your child often that you’re proud of them for trying hard things. Let them know they’re doing a great job even if they aren’t succeeding every time.

Falling into a power struggle

No one wins during a power struggle. Try to avoid them by giving your child choices (and honoring their choice) whenever it’s appropriate and safe. 

Relying on extrinsic motivators

This is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. Avoid using physical prizes or rewards as motivation. While this can work in the short term, we don’t want this to be the only reason our child accomplishes something. 

Encouraging self-motivation with Prodigy

Self-motivation sets a child up for success throughout their school years and beyond. With guidance and practice, your child can learn this important skill and smash their goals. 

If your child is lacking motivation in their math or English learning, try Prodigy! Prodigy's online games in math and English helps your child master key, curriculum-aligned skills – all while they have fun!

Plus with parent accounts, you can follow your child's progress, spot any struggle areas and motivate them with encouraging messages, goals and rewards.

See how it works for your child
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