By Rich Wilson:
One of the universal concerns of parents is how to appropriately motivate their children. At The Summit, our parents are high achieving. If they weren’t, they couldn’t afford to send their children to a private school. When a child doesn’t seem to have that same drive, discord results. There are many keys we use to unlock the potential of children:
1. Maintain a growth mindset
One key to a child making progress in school is to foster the belief that the child can learn anything if she puts her mind to it. Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research showed that the performance of children in school improved when the child adopted a “growth mindset.” Children who think this way try harder, persevere in the face of challenges, search for and try new strategies when obstacles to learning emerge. They seek help from others when they’re stuck.
The adults surrounding the child (parents, teachers and coaches) have to foster this belief. When the child says, “I can’t do math,” “I’m just no good at science,” “I’m just not athletic,” Summit teachers and coaches challenge that notion and seek ways to unlock doors that appear closed to the student. I recommend against telling children what their IQ score is. In my experience that ends up providing children with average or below average IQ excuses why they can’t learn more or provides those with a higher than average IQ a false sense of entitlement that they shouldn’t have to try hard. Knowing their IQ score leads to a fixed mindset, not a growth one.
2. Feed the child’s passion
Finding out what a child is interested in and building on that interest is often successful in reaching children who are hard to reach. Piano teachers have been doing that for years. If you want a child to practice, find out what style of music or song title aligns with a child’s interest and introduce one that has an appropriate level of challenge. Attraction strategies usually always outperform push strategies.
3. Challenge your children
When children seem bored with everyday school, a strategy that has had success is to introduce a challenge that the student has to address. The growth of project-based learning in schools is an example of this. Give the students a problem, divide them into groups and set them loose to solve it. The teacher takes on the role of advisor or facilitator rather than instructor. Students like the sense of control this teaching technique provides. They prefer doing to watching. If they can move around in the classroom, even better. They also enjoy social rewards of belonging to a group.
They look forward to presenting their solutions at the end, especially if the audience is more than just the teacher. Kids who show no interest in a subject often transform into highly motivated problem-solvers. One teacher who adopted this teaching technique noticed that the leaders that emerged in the groups were the “C” students and not the “A” students. They liked the challenge and thought that they were working on something worthwhile rather than jumping hoops, which is how school appears to them sometimes. The opportunity to present to parents makes children try harder to get the presentation just right.
4. Turn learning into a game
A variation on the challenge idea is to set up situations whereby children play a game which requires them to learn about a content area for them to succeed at the game. Kids love games, especially boys. The competition excites them. They measure their worth by how well they perform. Before they know it, they’re learning. Latin teachers have had good success with their “certamens,” Jeopardy-style games requiring fast recall of facts about ancient civilizations and the Latin language.
5. Give children choice
Giving children choices can help their motivation. They often feel that adults are constantly telling them what to do; they don’t feel they have much control. Giving students a choice in assignments expands their sense of agency. They own the choice they made.
6. Maintain positive relationships
Students perform better when they want to please their parent, teacher or coach. For that to happen, the student has to believe the adult cares about them and wants them to succeed. It’s also important that the child likes and/or respects the teacher or coach. Research shows this is especially important in educating boys. Upper School Director John Thornburg made a significant improvement at his former all-boys school by convincing teachers about the importance of establishing effective relationships with boys. That doesn’t mean making assignments easy or not being firm and demanding. Honesty, fairness and setting high expectations are hallmarks of great teachers and coaches.
Research has shown that happiness correlates with motivation and success. Sullen children are rarely high achievers. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who founded our school recognized the importance of this and were intentional about creating a joyful school environment which starts with the positive relationship between the teacher and the student. We follow that same tradition today.
7. Explaining the purpose or goal
Best practice in teaching is to begin the lesson by explaining what the learning goal is and why it’s important. Mastery-based goals motivate most human beings. We all want to get better. The goal should be about mastering Algebra rather than getting an “A” in Algebra. It’s also important to help the child understand why learning something is important. What’s the value of reading “Romeo and Juliet”? What’s the point of this scientific experiment?
8. Give helpful feedback immediately
Helpful and immediate feedback is most effective in keeping motivation high. The makers of video games realized early on the importance of feedback in keeping gamers engaged in the game. Students also look forward to celebrations of their effort and their successes. If we can find a way to make the child successful, that is often the catalyst to future success.
I’m skeptical about those who use rewards or punishment to motivate children. Rewards, like promising money if the child gets an “A,” may work in the short term, but results in children who need extrinsic rewards to perform. We want to develop children who are intrinsically motivated. Fear of punishment may also work in the short term, but it’s a failing strategy in the long term.
The Summit is blessed with caring teachers who are savvy about motivating their students. There are many keys which can unlock a child’s motivation. Our challenge is to know and understand the child so well that we select the right one. That’s the magic of the Summit Way.
Carol Zweck’s TedTalk: The Power of Believing that You Can Improve
New York Times: How not to talk to your kids
Harvard School of Education: “Because I’m Happy” An intriguing study notes a correlation between a student’s level of happiness and GPA”
Vanderbilt University: Motivating Students
About the author
Rich Wilson is the Head of School at The Summit Country Day School. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago School of Business. A former parent and former member of The Summit’s Board of Trustees, he took charge of the school in 2011 after retiring as a vice president at the Procter & Gamble Company, where he had a 24-year career.