Creating Self-Motivated Learners: How to get your kids to do their school work.

If there’s one question I’m hearing more and more frequently this fall it’s “How do I get my kids to do their school work?”. Parents who are overseeing distance learning are stressing out because their kids need seemingly endless amounts of oversight, and homeschoolers are second guessing every piece of curriculum they’ve purchased.

I am not a perfect homeschooler, and I’d be lying if I said my kids always did their schoolwork on time and to my specifications. But I can honestly say that I don’t worry about it all that much anymore. More often than not, my kids do their work and if they don’t it’s very easy for me to figure out what went wrong and correct the matter.

I gave a talk on ‘Creating Self-Motivated Learners’ last summer at a homeschool conference and I thought I would dust off my notes and type up an article for anyone who’s interested. I know a lot of folks are doing online talks, live streams and what not, but I really like putting down all my info in a blog post (#oldschool) so people can find the information in the future via my homeschooling page, Pinterest, or a Google search. So if you’re wondering how to get your kids to do their school work, here’s six ways (+ one) to help your kids do their work without endless nagging and yelling. It’s written with homeschoolers in mind, but I think most of it could be applied to distance learning too.

how do i get my kids to do their school work

1. You need clear rules and consequences.

I share this advice quite a bit, and most of the details are in this post, but I truly believe it makes life SO MUCH EASIER to have very clear expectations laid out for your kids at an early age. If your kids aren’t completing their schoolwork when you ask, what are the consequences? Are there consequences for other undesirable behavior in your house? Your kids need to know if they don’t follow instructions regarding school (or cleaning their room-whatever!) there will be swift and consistent repercussions. We have always had rules posted and because the kids know what I expect, and what will happen if they break a rule, there is no bargaining, or trying to get away with something because “they didn’t know”. If your child isn’t completing work, or stops doing something the second you walk away, look at whether or not you need to outline clear rules and consequences. You want your kids to form the habit of doing work right away when asked, and not questioning you.

Young kids don’t understand the benefits to completing work, or really the importance of school, in general. You can’t reason with them. They won’t care that “they’ll fail 4th grade” or “not get into college”. They just know they don’t want to sit and do work right now. Save your breath trying to reason with your little kids. You do know best. Young kids just need to follow the rules.

And remember, children who refuse to do work, turn into teens who refuse to do work. So it’s important to work on creating self-motivated learners as soon as possible. If you’re jumping into homeschooling or distance learning with older students, and they refuse to do work, setting rules and consequences will help, but getting other teachers, tutors, or someone beside you or your spouse to serve as an external motivator may be key. Kids who don’t want to turn in work on time for their parents, will sometimes happily turn in work for an online class, community college professor, or to please a coach who requires a student remain in good academic standing. Consider bringing in outside help to help with accountability so the question of, how do I get my kids to do their schoolwork, no longer falls solely on your shoulders.

As they get older, they’ll get in the habit of doing work independently during the allotted time. Eventually, they’ll become internally motivated (“I want to get this done so I can practice soccer.” or “I want to go to a great college.”) vs externally motivated (rules, consequences and rewards). Older kids understand delayed gratification; younger kids- not so much. Talk to your teens about how not completing work can harm their future plans. What matters to them? You can be flexible with their schedule (let them do school work late at night) or coursework (take electives of their choosing) and in general let them help plan their academics.

2. Offer sincere praise for a job well done.

Not gold stars for just showing up and doing the bare minimum, but praise when they’ve learned something new, overcome a challenge, not given in to the temptation to skip a problem, or completed something in the best way possible. There are plenty of opportunities to offer praise to your children and congratulate them on a job well done. Schedule a park or library day, bake a cake, do something special to celebrate. School is hard work, but it doesn’t always need to be difficult on everyone. Don’t always focus on the negatives, or it all seems negative. Work on fixing the problems through clear guidance and abundant, well-deserved praise.

3. Learn to recognize how your child’s personality affects his or her approach to schoolwork.

Your children will all respond differently to your expectations. Some will get right to work, some will stall, some will argue, and some will cry. Some children will seem to never understand the consequences that come from late and unfinished work, and others would sooner die than get less than an A. Start with the same goal in mind for all your kids (which is working independently) but know that you will need to tweak your methods to help each child excel in their own way. In my home, one child does best when working for online teachers, one does well with regular accountability checks from me, and another turns in work on time and doesn’t approach me unless she has questions. As a homeschooler to five kids, I couldn’t oversee everyone all the time. I needed to figure out how involved I needed to be with each one, and where outsourcing worked best so I could dedicate my time to where it was most needed.

4. It takes time for kids to build up the endurance and focus they need to work independently for long stretches of time.

I do not expect my fourth grader to sit and work as long as my high school junior. I started with small chunks of time intersperced with lots of outdoor breaks for my kids. I slowly built up the amount of time they were expected to work independently. My oldest son still takes breaks to move around, but sitting still for an hour lecture is not a problem. However, I never would’ve expected that of him in elementary school. Start with 15 minute chunks and lengthen the time from there.

Make sure your child clearly understands their assignments for the day, or week. They should know exactly what they’ll be working on during each chunk of time so they don’t need to stop and ask questions. Let them know when they can ask you questions, and when you will correct their work each day, or week. Having a daily checklist, or morning one-on-one meeting might help. Some kids will always need more help staying focused and on task. It’s not a reason to give up and say it’s impossible. It just means you need to help that child more. Their focus will improve, I promise.

It helps to limit recreational screen use. Nothing in modern entertainment or in the online world is designed to hold our attention. If your child is spending lots of time watching games or videos that cater to a short attention span, she will be undermining any efforts you take to help her sit and focus for more than a few moments at a time. Try to reduce screen time and see if it doesn’t help.

5. Identify other factors that might be causing your kids to resist working independently or zap their motivation.

First look at your own actions; are you sticking to your guns or are you letting them interrupt you constantly or not complete work on time? If you don’t follow through on the consequences you’ve laid out for them, they will keep trying to see what they can get away with. Are you reminding them multiple times to turn in work because you don’t want to give them a bad grade (or watch their teacher do the same)? It’s hard, but you need to step back and let them fail and feel the consequences of their actions. Sometimes finding the answer to “How do I get my kids to do their schoolwork??” means doing nothing at all. If you constantly rescue your child or do things for them, they will come to believe themselves incapable of doing things for themselves-which is the exact opposite of what you want!

Next, make sure they understand the school material, and that they don’t have an actual learning disability that is keeping them from performing at grade level. Even with a learning disability, your child can learn to work independently with different accommodations, perhaps a slower pace, or a change of curriculum. And it’s important to note that just because your children do not all work at the same pace, it doesn’t mean your “slower” child has a learning disability. They might just need to take more time. Don’t force all your kids to work at the same pace. If your child can’t get their work done, it might simply be that they can’t do the work. Make sure they are working at their level and not the level you’d like for them to be at.

If your child really does not click with a particular curriculum, it’s perfectly okay to switch. I don’t recommend doing it constantly, but if something creates tears everyday, there’s no reason you can’t switch it up, even temporarily. Sometimes that’s all a child needs to get over a rough patch and move on in a particular subject.

6. Keep a consistent daily schedule.

Kids like to know what to expect (even when they say they don’t). When they know every day they sit for 20 minutes to do math and then they can run around for ten minutes, they won’t stop and ask you every two minutes when they can take a break. When they know they get to sit with you for fifteen minutes every morning to go over reading questions, they won’t interrupt you feeding the baby because they know they can ask you tomorrow.

7. What are long term benefits?

It’s frustrating to create self-motivated learners. It requires a lot of work on your part in the early years, so why bother?? First off, it makes it a lot easier to manage your house and homeschool when you can get at least some of your little people to sit still for even small chunks of the day. Knowing you can focus on the child who needs it the most at any given moment (with minimal distraction) makes for less stressful homeschooling all around. Children who work independently, and follow a regular school schedule, can keep learning even if a grandparent needs to take over, or if mom needs to go on bedrest, or stay with a sick sibling in the hospital. As my kids have gotten older, their focus has helped them learn skills of their choosing. They understand that learning is built upon year after year: they need the boring lower level classes to take the high level ones they’re truly interested in, so they take them without complaining. And as they approach college, they have an idea of what they want to do, or continue to learn about, and my job has become assisting them to reach their goals vs telling them what to do.

That’s my two cents. I hope I answered your question on “How do I get my kids to do their schoolwork??”. Let me know if you have any questions below, and be sure to check out more of my homeschooling posts HERE.

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