My sister-in-law was here over the holiday and had a question that stumped me. She has a very intelligent 6 year-old girl who is completely losing motivation for everything. She doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning and when she finally does, she just wants to play my-little-ponies and refuses to get ready. At school her teacher complains of her not focusing and "daydreaming". She doesn't want to finish her dinner, just stir it around in her plate, doesn't want to do her homework, so a 10 minute assignment takes 60 minutes. Her mother is getting exhausted trying to come up with ways to get her to do things. Any tips on how to help her become more motivated? My Sister in law doesn't want to squelch her daughter's creativity or make her think life is only about work, but it's getting to a very frustrating point for her and she is looking for advice.
This is a great question - and I have put a lot of thought into the answer. For starters I asked for ideas from one of the best teachers/moms/person I know. Hannah taught little ones and has a wonderful perspective. She is a true treasure (you can tell from the response she gives). My answer is after this post. So, here is her beautiful answer:
"I think inspiration can breed motivation. As a teacher of young children, I think one of my primary responsibilities (& joys in teaching) was to inspire my students: inspire kindness, trust, silliness, resiliency, a can-do attitude...the list goes on. So when a student was having trouble in class, I would ask myself "How can I inspire & motivate little Jane?" I was never big on "do this, get this" reward systems where prizes were doled out. Some kids need that in the classroom, but I've found that most kids don't. Most kids can be inspired and motivated--but you have to know what makes him or her tick. It sounds like this little girl may be bored in school--I wonder if any of these things might work to add some enthusiasm and focus...? These are all things I found easy, quick and doable in my classroom. But of course, not everything works for all kids, and her teacher would need to be willing to try these things.
*Extend assignments creatively to make them more interesting to her. Write & illustrate a story to go with the pictures on the math assignment. Make math problems from the illustrations in a book. Write a different ending for a story. Of course, these need to be things she can enjoy doing independently.
*Does she like helping? When I had a bright quick finisher in my class, I found they often liked and were quite skilled at helping their peers. I taught them some little "insider's tricks" on how to be a teacher by helping, not doing, the work for other kids. In order to help others, she needs to set a good example by finishing her work--then she can help. Most kids love knowing they're helping their teacher and friends. And it was so cute to see little helpers say things like "What word would make sense there?" or "Get your mouth ready" when reading, for example.
*Does she like to write/draw? I had a very bright kindergartner last year who finished her work quickly. But she LOVED to write and draw. That inspired her. So she had a "Words Book" that I made her. (Just paper stapled together.) She titled each booklet "Volume ___" and wrote and drew the most lovely, creative pages. She was learning, thinking, creating. I looked at her book every few days and wrote comments and asked questions, so it also became a 2 way journal for us. But, she was only able to work on this when she had completed whatever classroom assignment I had given her. This motivated & inspired her.
*She seems to like her ponies--maybe she could have a "pony journal" and when she finishes her work, she can write about what she and the ponies will do after she finishes her homework that afternoon (maybe it'll help with motivating the completion of homework in a more timely fashion, too?). The teacher could write at the top "After I finish my homework, my ponies will..." and then she can write about the magical kingdoms they'll explore, etc.
*One of my all time favorite tools was giving choices, which you wrote about a while back, Ang. "Would you like to complete your assignment at your desk or at the writing center?" "Would you like to do your math problems from top to bottom or bottom to top?" And when it comes down to it, "Would you like to do your assignment now or at recess?"
*Speaking of choice, that can be inspiring and motivating, too. Maybe the teacher would be willing to create a menu of acceptable independent choices for AFTER she finishes her assignment. Make the menu cute and colorful. Put it in a special place where the kid can consult it. I've found kids can be motivated to finish the must-do classroom assignments when they know they have a choice waiting for them after.
*Some kids need a visual reminder of encouragement. For one little boy who struggled to stay focused and complete assignments, I wrote some encouraging words on index cards and taped them to the inside of his pencil box, on the inside of his journal, math workbook, etc. He loved trains, so I wrote and illustrated trains with words like "I think I can, I think I can. I believe in you, Marcus! You can do it!" If he was daydreaming or not focusing, I'd stop at his desk and point to one of these cards, not saying anything. Just a smile and a tap, tap, tap. He got the reminder without feeling nagged.
*Draw a picture of something she loves or get some pretty paper and write something like "I am the queen of focusing!" or some such thing. Tape the paper to her desk or inside her pencil box. When you catch her being really focused, draw a little star or crown or flower--whatever she likes. When she collects an agreed upon number of drawings, send home a handwritten note to mom and dad on some beautiful stationary sharing the good news. That can be very inspiring and motivating for kids. It also gives them a visual reminder and keeps track of progress, so that they may start self-checking and being aware of their own behavior.
As a teacher, I found I usually only had a few students (at most) who needed these kinds of motivational tools each year. So, these were quick and easy things that I could do in my classroom. Maybe some of them could be adapted by mom at home, too. I firmly believe that "there's nothing more unequal than an equal education." Meaning, kids need different things to feel successful and reach their highest potential. I never had a problem with other kids saying "that's not fair" or "why don't I have a special journal/menu/paper in my pencil box?" And if they did, I'd explain "Different kids need different things." and they were usually content with that explanation.
I think as adults we need to be inspired and motivated, too. Inspiration is so pivotal in life. When I worked for a really super school principal, who inspired me in the way he interacted with kids, smiled at everyone in the hallways and led staff meetings with such a kind and positive attitude, I felt motivated to be the best teacher I could be, even on the most challenging of days. When I have dinner with a really amazing, resilient, funny friend, I leave feeling inspired...and motivated to be a better friend or be a better story teller or look at things in a new way. And now as a new mom I consider it one my greatest jobs and challenges to inspire my daughter to live a happy, creative and joyful life."
Thank you, thank you, Hannah! What brilliant ideas. Reading so many beautiful ideas is inspirational.
Painting: Renoir's "Portrait of Claude Renoir Painting"