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The Science of Motivation: How to motivate your teen in three simple steps

The Science of Motivation: How to motivate your teen in three simple steps

As parents, nothing makes us more proud than seeing our children reach new heights. But let’s be honest—the struggle to motivate them is real!

For example, does any of this sound familiar?
  • Your student easily gets distracted.
  • You frequently face conflict with your student about schoolwork.
  • Your student acts as if they’d rather do anything but school.
  • Your student will only do the bare minimum.
  • Your student makes excuses when things don’t go well.
  • Your student complains about not being good at school.
  • You find yourself micromanaging your student to get things done.

If any of this rings a bell, your student may need a motivation upgrade.

Here’s the problem, though: Most middle schools and high schools aren’t designed to maximize student motivation. So, you might need to do a few new things to guide your student. The good news is, we’re here to give you a simple toolbox to light your student’s inner fire and get them back on track.

At Education Empowerment Hub, we believe that you, the parent, have the most important and significant impact on your child’s education—and that you should get all the training, tools to succeed, and support you need to provide the best educational experience for your kids.

In this post, we’ll debunk some common misconceptions about motivating middle and high school students and dive deeper into the science of motivation. We’ll highlight one practice that has worked the best to help our students tap into their hidden sources of intrinsic motivation—the highest form of motivation anyone can have. The next two steps are detailed in a post focused on taking the lead in your family's education. We’ll also invite you to view a webinar recording to learn more about additional methods you can use to keep your child motivated and engaged at school.

Motivation Basics: What Works & What Doesn’t

Let’s start by breaking down some common misconceptions about motivating teens and tweens in online school:

Misconception #1: External rewards and punishments keep students motivated

Remember the old “carrot and stick” analogy for motivation? As it turns out, neither one works that well. The problem is, both are forms of external motivation, which wears out quickly. Most people, especially teens and tweens, would rather do work because they choose to do it—not just for the sake of future punishment or reward. Otherwise, they feel like passengers in their own lives because their decisions are based on external factors they can’t control.

Misconception #2: Students should be equally motivated in all subjects

One of the most amazing things about people is our diversity of talents and interests. It’s rare to find a student equally excited to dive into a physics textbook as they are about a novel for a literature class (or vice versa). But the truth is, most students just don’t love all subjects equally—and that’s okay. The goal isn’t to be good at everything—those people are insufferable anyway. Instead, the goal is for your student to learn how to get good at something they love and to keep doing it.

Misconception #3: Students need supervision to stay motivated

Picture the last time you saw your student doing something they love. Did they need your supervision to keep practicing at it? No! That’s because once your student taps into their source of intrinsic motivation, it will keep them going for as long as they stay focused on it. So, suppose they have an area of schoolwork lacking motivation. In that case, it’s not because they need more supervision—it’s because they feel disconnected from what intrinsically motivates them (more on this below).

So how can you find the right learning style for your student and see their motivation in action?

The Motivation Toolbox: How to Level-Up Your Student’s Motivation

Step #1: Set up a reward system that promotes their autonomy

Instead of micromanaging your student with rewards and punishments (for example, giving them more screen time when they get good grades and revoking screen time when they don’t), try putting your student in the driver’s seat.

To do this, give them the tools to succeed. Let them know that you respect their autonomy and believe they can succeed without you holding their hand at every step. Then, ask to what extent they feel ready to take the lead in planning and getting their school work done.

Side note: The level of autonomy they choose will vary from student to student. Some will be excited to have more freedom; others might feel intimidated. The goal here is not complete autonomy right away. It’s for them to choose their level of autonomy consciously and to succeed/fail at it.

Now, you might be thinking: Wait, what? Did you just write the ‘F’ word, a.k.a. “fail”? Yes, we did. Learning how to fail and try again is one of the most important lessons anyone can learn, and your student needs that lesson. They need to fail!

Next, set up a rhythm for accountability. Ask your student to create a weekly plan for their next week of schoolwork and other duties, and check-in with them at an agreed-upon frequency—say, twice a day or twice a week. Whatever feels good to both of you.

Then, if they did well at the end of the week, reward them with more autonomy by checking in only once a day or once a week, and so on. If they didn’t do well, that’s okay too. Just stick with the plan and keep letting them make choices. They can ask you questions or even request to change how often you check in with them.

Again, the key is putting your student in the driver's seat. Make autonomy itself the reward for their good performance. It gives them the sense of control in their life that they need and crave—and which most other external reward systems tend to snuff out.

Curious about the next two steps? Our next blog post covers the additional steps and how to take the lead in your family's education. We also recently hosted a webinar The Science of Motivation: Helping your kids own their education. We discussed practical, science-backed methods you can use to keep your child motivated and engaged at school. If you'd like to view the webinar recordings, click here

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