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Culture Q&A

How to motivate kids to learn at home

A panel of homeschooling experts talks about the importance of relationships, tangible rewards, and routines with flexibility

How to motivate kids to learn at home

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Scenario: Deanna is a new homeschool mom with three kids. The oldest is in 10th grade and loves volleyball. The second is a fourth grader who loves math. And the third is a kindergartner with special needs. All planned to do in-person school this year, but because of COVID-19, their family chose to homeschool. Deanna feels some trepidation as she starts her homeschool journey.

Deanna is a composite of real homeschooling parents, and the COVID-19 pandemic has produced a lot more of them. This edited Q&A is the first in a series in which we take questions from parents like Deanna to several experts. The first topic is how to motivate kids to learn at home, and the panel addressing it includes Alice Churnock, Sally Clarkson, Cathy Duffy, and Mystie Winckler. (Click here for a short biography of each of them.)

At school, kids often feel motivated by peer pressure, grades, detention, that sort of thing. How can families motivate kids to learn at home?

Sally: For younger moms, I’d say make your house a house of resources. Have play dough, bubbles, puzzles, sticker books, audiobooks to listen to in the car. For moms of older kids, the very first thing you need to do is to develop an unshakable foundation of relationship with your child. Take them on a date. Win their heart. Let them know that this will be a transition, but we can explore things that you’re interested in. If we believe someone is for us, then we will be happy to follow their lead. Unconditional love is the most important foundation for becoming an influencer of another person.

Mystie: And it’s completely appropriate to prioritize. This might not be the time to get all the science facts they were supposed to in this grade. Instead, ask, What is this time for? If you are reading Scripture with them and reading other books aloud, that is relationship building. And you’re gaining all kinds of knowledge. You’re bringing them alongside of you and doing it with them. You’re saying, Hey, let’s work through this together. It’s not like you never need carrots and sticks, but this approach takes on a different flavor. 

Cathy: Right. The other thing is, you can allow your children to have input on what you’re doing. I’ll give you an example. My 9-year-old granddaughter wanted to shift up to fifth grade math. And I said, “Well, you know, you need to really work on mastering your math facts. Your multiplication and division facts.” We talked about the way she likes to learn, and I found an online game to help her. She began to play on her own and even got her sister to play with her. So, giving them some say helps them buy into the process. 

Alice, when you counsel a kid who needs to do hard things at home, how do you approach motivation?

Alice: As adults, we can appreciate long-term gratification, but a child’s brain doesn’t work that way. A child is going to look for instant gratification. If I tell a young teen, “Go study so you get into a good college,” he won’t care. But if I say, “Go study so that you can have the car tonight,” suddenly that’s clicking. So I would encourage parents to have more immediate rewards. 

Sometimes I set up a weekly ticket a teacher can sign to say my client completed all his assignments. That ticket allows them to play video games that weekend. Homeschoolers could do that on a daily basis. Fill out the ticket and give kids a reward at the end of the day. But it’s got to be something that the kid cares about. 

Mystie, what about a good routine? Can that help motivate kids?

Mystie: For sure. I think establishing a routine takes time and intention. It actually takes some give and take. Try things out and learn what doesn’t work. A lot of productivity tools are geared more toward office work. Even schools run more like an office than a home does. We need to honor the nature of our home. It’s easy to think of the children’s needs as interruptions. But if we see our homeschool day as us teaching them, then when our children need us, it’s not an interruption. It’s just our job.

Cathy: Yeah, that’s great. We do need to respond to what’s going on with our kids. We might have our schedule in mind, and we want them to finish math before lunch. But they may just be tired, burned out, not able to do math. It would be so much more useful to let them play in the backyard for half an hour. Or maybe eat and come back to it. Sometimes a kid who dawdles may need negative consequences, but I found that kind of flexibility absolutely critical. 

Mystie: That happens every day at my house. I have five kids, and there’s some point at which I say, “This isn’t working. You need to go outside.” 

Cathy: And I love the idea of it being a routine. They know what to expect. Not that every day should be the same, but it’s not like, “Oh, surprise! We’re doing math today.” 

Sally, you often write about the natural curiosity of children. How did you use that to motivate your kids?

Sally: I could give you a million examples. In my recent book, I write about one clear night I announced, “We are going to sleep out under the stars tonight.” Everybody screamed and yelled and started bringing sleeping bags and pillows out onto the deck. We munched on brownies and talked. We saw shooting stars. We identified the Big Dipper and the Milky Way. We were just having so much fun sleeping together, cuddling under blankets. I didn’t give them a lecture and say, “Look at the stars now.” The next day, one of the kids researched what black holes were. Another child said, “I wonder who named the stars?” and he found out about Galileo and Copernicus. My relational boy drew a picture of all of us being friends out looking under the stars. Each of them took away a different application, but all of us reported on what we learned at the dinner table.

You can do the same kind of learning at a botanical garden, or the zoo, or hiking. Or read Dickens and ask, I wonder what it was like in Victorian England? Let’s look it up. All of these experiences provide vocabulary. They provide a stepping stone to other subjects. It’s a holistic way of looking at the acquisition of knowledge. 

Some parents may work or for other reasons may not be able to take field trips. Cathy, can we motivate kids with a more traditional curriculum?

Cathy: Yeah, now we’re talking about learning styles. In my reviews, I use four learning styles based on the Myers-Briggs personality test. Wiggly Willy, Perfect Paula, Sociable Sue, and Competent Carl. Wiggly Willy is the most obvious. The child who can’t sit still and often they are hands-on kinesthetic learners. They may also be audiovisual learners. It may take all of that just to keep their attention. Competent Carl likes to be in charge of himself. You might be able to give him a workbook or put him on Teaching Textbooks on the computer, and he’ll be happy as a clam. Nobody’s telling him what to do. If you tried to do that with Sociable Sue, she’s gonna miss the social part. She’d rather be around people and talking, interacting. If you know the learning style of your child, it can really help you choose the right curriculum. 

—Read the second installment in this Q&A series on homeschooling: “How to meet kids’ social needs while homeschooling


Panelists for this article:

Alice Churnock is a licensed professional counselor and eating disorder specialist. She also offers counseling advice to Christian families in her podcast, Ask Alice. Alice is married and has two young boys in Birmingham, Ala.

Sally Clarkson is the author of more than 20 books, including Awaking Wonder: Opening Your Child’s Heart to the Beauty of Learning. She and her son Nathan together wrote Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box-Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him. Learn more about Sally on her website, sallyclarkson.com, or her podcast, At Home With Sally & Friends. Sally homeschooled four now-adult children and currently lives in Oxford, England.

Cathy Duffy began reviewing curriculum for her own kids. Her research led to several popular books including 102 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum. See Cathy’s latest top picks as well as thousands of curriculum reviews at her website, Cathy Duffy Reviews. Cathy homeschooled three boys and now resides in California. 

Mystie Winckler founded the website Simply Convivial, a resource offering gospel-centered homemaking and homeschooling self-paced courses. Learn more about Mystie through her Help for Homemakers YouTube channel. Mystie homeschools five children and lives with her husband, Matt, in Washington state.