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Motivating Children: A Lesson for Parents

The task of motivating children is at the same time a lot easier and a lot harder than most parents think. It requires patience, restraint, understanding of the child's unique style and, perhaps most important, unqualified affection.

Most parents start to worry about motivation too late, when Sarah brings home a D in eighth grade math or when she seems more interested in pleasing the boys than in preparing for medical school. Their typical reaction is to institute stern measures in an effort to turn the child in the right direction. A student who seems unmotivated at this age is likely to be searching for identity and highly resistant to a parent's effort to control. High achievers, in contrast, are usually secure and self confident with a motivation that comes from within.

Start Early
Even before birth, begin to build a warm, comfortable environment for the child's growth. A recent study at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit found that low-birth-weight babies, by age 6 or 7, had IQ scores averaging five points lower than normal-weight babies. Studies of children who, decades ago, grew up in institutions with good physical care but no parental nurturing, showed inadequate growth, both physically and intellectually. Dr. John V. Gilmore who surveyed MIT and Boston University students over a 20-year period, found that high achievers were more likely than others to have had warm, stable family experiences and parents who gave unqualified encouragement and support.

Child psychologists talk of the "magic triad"--a smile, a hug, an affectionate word. Studies conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina in the 1970s demonstrated that these three were significantly associated with self-esteem and improved academic performance. Supportive parents talk to their children, read to them, and play games with them.

Foster But Don't Push
Gifted and talented children typically have a succession of sustained interests, becoming almost obsessed with reading about chess, collecting records or building a racing car. Actually, most children do have sustained interests although they may hide their best talents from parents and teachers. It's important to look closely for clues and avoid being judgmental. The mother who objects to her son's enthusiasm for "head banging music" may also be turning off his interest in the "serious music" she wishes to encourage. If you want your children to be motivated, psychologists say you should be willing to listen to them and to share as much as possible their interests.

Respect Individual Styles
Research on learning styles conducted over the past three decades at St. John's University and elsewhere has influenced classroom learning, but parents may still be unaware of these developments. Although there are many variants, the two major learning styles are analytic and global. Analytic learners like to have information presented in a systematic, step-by-step manner. They learn best in a quiet, brightly lighted work area with formal seating--a desk or table and chair. They don't like to snack while working, and they follow one project to completion or to a logical stopping point.

When most parents were young, all students were expected to be analytic learners. As a result, these parents may be intolerant of global learners. Global learners learn best through anecdotes or stories. They thrive where analytic learners would be distracted, preferring to spread out on a comfortable couch or chair in a softly lit area with music playing or perhaps some background conversation. They are likely to take frequent breaks and may work on several projects at once. They also like to team up on projects with children who share simalar interests.

Many children who were underachievers have benefited from a change in their learning environment from analytic to global or vice versa. If your school doesn't recognize individual learning styles, you can help by creating a home environment that suits your child's needs.

Other elements of learning are important. Some children learn better on their own; others in a group. Some like patterns or routines while others like variety. A few individuals (more females than males) are good at remembering what they hear. A greater percentage are better at remembering what they read or see. By far the largest proportion of children learn better by touching or handling objects or by experiencing what they learn by taking a field trip or baking a cake.

About 95 percent of children who need a mobile, action-oriented learning environment are boys. A child diagnosed with attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder can be helped with treatment, but in many cases a sympathetic environment can turn a trouble maker into a leader. One first grade teacher pulled a boisterous boy from the recess line but instead of punishing him said, "John, I've always considered you a leader. I think you belong up here at the front of the line where you can provide an example for the other children." John was amazed and responded appropriately.

With all the variety in human personality, one fact remains constant: children as well as adults do best when they have encouragement, support and respect from persons who mean most to them.

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Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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