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From the Mouths of Kids: What We’ve Learned from Students Schooling at Home. Part 3: Motivation

by David Engle | Jul 23, 2020 | 7 min read

As parents deliberate whether to send their children back to school in the fall, amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country, perhaps we should all listen to some people who will give it to you straight, who have experienced learning at home first-hand–kids.

As we shared in the first two parts of this blog series (catch up here and here), YouthTruth, a national nonprofit organization, conducted an anonymous survey of more than 20,000 students, who provided more than 40,000 open-ended responses to the following three questions related to schooling at home during the spring 2020 school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • What about learning at home do you like? Are there things you hope will stay the same next school year?
  • What about learning at home do you find challenging? How can your school help?
  • Since your school building closed, briefly describe your day…

From there, YouthTruth analyzed the responses, categorized them accordingly, and created a list of five benefits and five challenges associated with learning at home (remember, learning at home is not the same as homeschooling!).

These are some really interesting and valid insights that neither parents nor educators may have been fully aware of. And they deserve as much consideration as the challenges when deciding the right course of action for the upcoming school year. But right now, we’re going to focus on the challenges since there may be solutions that can be implemented either by you as a parent or by school administrators. In part 1 of this series, we discussed distractions and ways to minimize them; in part 2, we talked about the challenges of online schoolwork and schedules. Today, we’ll focus on challenge 3: motivation.

Motivation is tough to pinpoint, and it’s even more difficult to create a blanket solution for lack of motivation, because every student is different. What drives one child might make another child fall asleep. What one kid finds easy, another might find impossible. By and large, most solutions for a lack of motivation are going to come from within each child and a support system. That said, there are certain approaches and tactics that can be employed to increase engagement and motivation amongst students.

The following statements came directly from students who suffered from lack of motivation throughout distance-based learning during the spring.

“Finding the motivation to do schoolwork was the most difficult challenge I found during distance learning. In a classroom, most of the time, you are forced to work on assignments either as a class or in a small group of friends. At home, you have to push yourself to be productive. Lacking motivation caused me to dramatically fall behind.”

I’m not sure how thrilled teachers would be when hearing that this student was “forced to work on assignments” in class, but you get the idea. Some children need that push to start and finish their work. I’ve had some people tell me that their kid gets up at the same time each day, sits down at the table with the computer, and pounds out the work. I’ve had others tell me they pretty much have to kick their kids out of bed and carry them to their computers to start their school day. And then to start their work. And then to finish the assignments.

The student making this statement has a point, however. Some children get motivated or excited about the prospect of working with other students on projects, in study groups, and in science labs. That didn’t happen during remote learning this past spring. Plus, in a classroom setting, the ever-looming presence of a teacher provides most kids with motivation to work, whether it’s caused by motivation to succeed or motivation to not fail or get in trouble. Because that presence may have been lacking in some classrooms, some kids struggled with ways to motivate themselves.

The obvious fix, assuming there will be some element of remote-based learning during the upcoming school year? Have teachers conduct live classes rather than distributing assignment-based work. Even if the “classroom” still involves the student sitting in his/her bedroom or at the dining room table, the presence of a teacher leading class and the knowledge that their classmates are right there with them in their own homes has to serve as reassurance for kids. And the teacher is “there” to provide that push or motivation that some kids need. Maybe there will even be opportunities for virtual group work.

“[Schools should offer therapy to] help students and their mental health.”

We’re living in a different world right now, and many kids (and adults) are still struggling with various aspects of it. Minimal physical and social interaction with loved ones outside of the home. Less social activity with friends. Boredom. Cabin fever. That can all contribute to overall fatigue, mental stress, and lack of motivation. The idea of schools offering therapy to help students with their mental health is a smart one. Some schools do provide counseling services to help with matters such as these–it might be a matter of proactively seeking out the information by calling your school district to find out what types of services are available.

The struggle is real. Knowing how to identify signs of stress and depression is key in the battle against these illnesses. The CDC offers some helpful tips and advice about stress, anxiety, and mental health, specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Personally speaking, I’ve seen my 11-year-old daughter’s personality change over the past few months, and it’s been difficult to watch. She’s a very social person who loves nothing more than hanging out with her friends (especially sleepovers) and practicing and playing with her travel softball team. Throughout much of this pandemic, she’s seen her friends minimally, taken part in softball primarily via Zoom practices in the backyard, and been stuck in the house. She became much more withdrawn and started some new behaviors that worried us as parents: shutting herself in her room glued to her iPad with the shades drawn, acting very sluggish and lazy, resisting any requests or demands to do chores (which we ultimately made her do anyway). In short, she was motivated to do absolutely nothing.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We encouraged her to FaceTime her BFFs as often as they could, we’ve played more games and watched more movies as a family, but she simply needs that face-to-face interaction with friends. Unfortunately that’s not been an option until recently. Her softball team resumed in-person practices in late June, and they participated in their first tournament this past weekend (they won the championship!), and it’s done wonders for her. But my wife and I were concerned…if the resumption of softball and the increased interaction with her friends didn’t help, we were ready to seek out some help for her. It’s still something we’ll need to keep a close eye on, especially once school resumes–and we’re not exactly sure what that’s going to look like in New Jersey just yet.

All kids are different and are handling this unprecedented situation in their own way. My 15-year-old, who’s a homebody by nature, hasn’t minded this a bit. He gets his social interaction by playing video games online with his friends every day, and he’s enjoyed the extra family time as well. So, even within the same household, people are going to deal with this situation in very different ways. If you notice your child exhibiting different behaviors or signs of stress, anxiety, or depression, it’s important to monitor it and seek out help, just as the student who took this survey asked for.

“I have no motivation, no teacher to ask questions, no one to talk about my mental health […] the online classes don’t work the same way as being physically there.”

“Having supportive teachers/staff that can advise [them] of ways to improve can help in actively doing work.”

The first comment here is a bit of a combination between the two comments above. Having a teacher available and “in the classroom” with the students is a solution to some of the motivation issues. And making mental health resources and services available to all students should make a difference as far as social-emotional well-being is concerned.

This second response is interesting. Not only does this student presumably want a teacher present for live learning, but he/she sees an important opportunity for teachers to actively help students with their lack of motivation and work with them to figure out ways to get them motivated and engaged with the work. From a teacher’s perspective, one could argue that they’ve already got their hands full with everything involved with online instruction, and that it’s ultimately up to the student and his or her family to figure out ways to entice them to work harder. But that approach is probably a bit short-sighted. Yes, teachers have entire classes of students to look out for, but keeping them all engaged arguably falls under their purview. And think about when things were normal (or pre-COVID)…if a student went up to a teacher and specifically asked for help, the teacher more than likely would be quite willing to make him/herself available to that child. The same logic should apply to remote learning as well–rather than a face-to-face meeting, a teacher could arrange a one-on-one Zoom session to discuss options and solutions for the student’s struggles. And I believe most, if not all, teachers would gladly partake if the student or a parent asked.

Like many of the issues surfacing from this survey, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for addressing a child’s lack of motivation. But it’s important to look into the reasons for it–many children mentioned mental health as a problem during this pandemic, and some students are very open to the idea of therapy as a means to address the issues they’re experiencing.

Whether you homeschool full time or are experiencing it for the first time due to COVID-19, it’s important to keep your child’s social-emotional well-being in mind. If you’re witnessing or sensing a lack of motivation related to school (or anything else), talk to your child about what he or she is feeling and experiencing. Perhaps you can figure out the solution as a family. Or maybe you need some outside help, in which case you can contact your school district to see what types of services they offer.

While a lack of motivation to do schoolwork is a cause for concern, your child’s well-being is of utmost importance. The lack of motivation may simply be a symptom of a larger issue, and getting to the bottom of that will help solve any number of problems that your child may be having related to school, stress, or anxiety.

How have your children been dealing with this “new world”? How have you been helping them through it? Share in the comments below.

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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