The 3 (not-so-easy) Steps for Increasing Motivation in Your Child

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Parents want their children to be motivated to learn and succeed but often complain, “My child is so unmotivated!” As a child and family therapist, I know that when I hear this concern it means we have to dig a little deeper.

Step 1: Identify the Interfering Issue

“Lack of motivation” can mean so many things and can appear as such for so many different reasons. A child who seems uninterested, for example, in doing their homework or cleaning up can be struggling with a wide variety of issues. Is the child potentially procrastinating because of being easily distracted or still new with time management? Or is the child a perfectionist or anxious about not being able to complete the goal successfully? Perhaps the child is lacking some critical skills to complete the task or has low confidence in applying skills? Dozens of possibilities lurk.

Some questions could include:

  • “I notice you seem to have trouble starting your reading earlier in the day. What do you think is going on?”
  • “What do you think would be a good way to organize your backpack?”
  • “Are you feeling nervous about taking that note to your teacher?”

Parents need to first do some data collection through observation and compassionate questions before being able to know how to best jump into helping their child achieve the next level of success. The identified interference will help a parent know where to go next in their support and encouragement of next step.

Step 2: Planning and Doing

Most of us will find it difficult to jump right into a task that we are avoiding for some reason or find challenging. Some mindful awareness, preparation, and planning is often a needed precursor within this step. This is rarely a “just do it” or willpower type of situation but instead a more nuanced situation that might need more focus. Although it sounds counterintuitive, asking the child about all the hesitations and all the downsides of completing the specific task is often a nice way to open conversation, to validate how difficult the change might be, and to give the child some space to verbalize the difficulties. One of the most common interferences at this stage is trying to plan too big of a step and too many steps at a time, and this then leads to being overwhelmed and potentially less successful.

Conversations around planning ahead might involve statements such as:

  • “What do you think would be the worst part about starting that book report before going to your friend’s party?”
  • “Do you think it would work better if you tried to do that on Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon?”
  • “Wow! That sounds like a really big plan. I wonder if we could figure out the very first step of that and start with just that?”

The next step is then to follow through with doing. There are some children (and adults) who happily make a plan but get stuck in the next phase of taking the plunge for action.

Some of the conversations around action could include:

  • “Do you want me to sit next to you while you do it?”
  • “Anything we can do to get ready for you to do this?”
  • “I remember how proud you felt last time you tried this.”

Step 3: Reinforce and Reward

The notion of how and when to best reinforce children does create some conflict in the field of psychology, but there is very little disagreement that all humans need to be noticed for accomplishments. Reinforcement can come in the form of compliments and high-fives or in the form of more concrete rewards such as a celebratory ice cream run or extra story time; more important than what is that it is provided, especially if a child is achieving something new and difficult. The hope will be for the children to eventually be able to do more coaching of self, but this often starts with adults in their world doing this in specific, genuine, and targeted ways.

Verbal reinforcement and evaluation discussions can come in various forms:

  • “Did you notice anything different about how you felt after you finished it?”
  • “Was there anything that worked really well in how you approached that scary event?”
  • “What do you think would work better next time there is a deadline approaching?”

These 3 steps sound easy but do require practice—for both child and parent; however, as we get more practice and experience in doing things, we tend to want to do them more often—and so the seemingly unmotivated child can then become more skilled and more adept at small steps of accomplishing the previously avoided-scary-procrastinated-difficult tasks.


Sandra Wartski, PsyD

National Register Credentialed Since 1995
Sandra Wartski, Psy.D. completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester and received her Doctorate in Psychology from Widener University.  After interning at Media Child Guidance Clinic and The Renfrew Center, Dr. Wartski moved to Raleigh and joined Silber Psychological Services in 1993. As a licensed psychologist in North Carolina, Dr. Wartski has been conducting individual, family and group therapy, as well as psychoeducational evaluations, with special interests in mood disorders, anxiety, eating disorders, relationship issues and crisis intervention. One of her favorite parts of being a therapist is the opportunity to build relationships allowing room for positive growth and change. Dr. Wartski also enjoys providing presentations and writing articles on a variety of mental health topics for both community groups and other professionals.