If you struggled at work every day and got negative feedback for things you did or didn’t do, what would that do to your confidence and self-esteem? What would make you continue to push yourself to improve?
Many kids with learning and thinking differences have negative experiences in school and beyond because of what they do or don’t do. Think about the child with ADHD who keeps forgetting her homework and gets marked down for it. Or the child with dyscalculia who rarely finishes the math worksheet in class—or gets half the answers wrong. Those experiences can be frustrating and defeating.
So what makes kids with learning and thinking differences continue to push themselves to improve? The answer lies with being—and staying—motivated.
The Importance of Motivation
Motivation is the drive behind an action you take. It’s the force behind training long hours for a sport tryout or staying up late to make a science project even better.
Usually there’s an incentive involved. Making the team or having people admire your project at the science fair feels good, which makes the hard work leading up to it worth it. The positive feedback provides motivation to do it again the next time.
It can also lead kids to continue to try over the long haul. The incentive of having positive experiences and outcomes can keep them working despite hurdles. And the ability to do that is key for kids with learning and thinking differences.
Motivation and Kids With Learning and Thinking Differences
What gives kids the drive to do things? Often, it’s the prospect of succeeding—or at least improving so you can succeed. The more kids feel competent at a task, the more likely they are to enjoy the activity and want to get better at it. Success builds motivation, which leads to more success.
But kids with learning and thinking differences typically experience more setbacks than their peers. They face more challenges. And improvement and success may come more slowly or less frequently despite hard work. That can take a toll on motivation.
If a child studies for a test and still doesn’t do well, she might be motivated to try harder and do better next time. But if she keeps doing poorly, she may start to think, “Why bother studying for the next test? It’s not going to make a difference.”
Over time, she may start to anticipate a bad outcome with anything she does. That can cause her to give up easily, not try her best and avoid challenges altogether.
But if she finds the motivation to try yet again, she can persevere. She might be willing to stick with it even if she doesn’t have positive experiences at first. And that can build resilience.
How to Help Your Child Find Motivation
Kids with learning and thinking differences need motivation to try and try again. But without a strong history of success, your child may need more of a boost from you. Here are some ways you can help your child stay motivated.
Help her feel successful. Feelings of success aren’t limited to the end of a project. With a little help from you at the start, your child can have positive moments along the way.
For example, if she has to write a paper, you might download a graphic organizer and help her with the outline. That extra support may help her feel more engaged in the writing process.
It may also build confidence as she’s working on it. So even if the outcome isn’t the greatest, that feeling of success while doing it may help her approach the next paper feeling motivated.
Focus on effort, not outcomes. If your child does well on a test, don’t just share your excitement over the grade. There are more helpful ways to give her praise. Ask her what she did to prepare. Did she make flashcards or get extra help from the teacher?
Do the same if she doesn’t do well. Reflecting on how she approached studying may help her discover other ways to do it next time. That can motivate her to try a new approach.
Foster a growth mindset. If your child tries but doesn’t succeed, avoid saying what’s done is done and leaving it at that. Frame the discussion around the steps she can take. That can help her keep moving forward instead of feeling stuck.
Focusing on “the next time” can help your child develop a “growth mindset.” It can instill the belief that you get better with practice. That’s much more motivating than a “fixed mindset,” the belief that if you’re not naturally great at something you’ll never be great at it.
Get your child out of her comfort zone. When kids experience negative outcomes, they can lose the motivation to try new things. That can happen with activities outside of school, too. But taking risks and trying new things can help kids to uncover new strengths and passions.
That’s why it’s important to stress the upside of trying things that may be difficult at first. Let’s say your child is starting to take piano lessons. She’s struggling just like all kids do when they begin learning a new activity. But if she’s used to having bad experiences when she works at things, she might avoid practicing.
In that case you can say, “I know it’s hard in the beginning. But imagine how great it will feel when you can play that song.” That may remind her of the incentive to keep trying.
Recognize success. No matter how your child does, find something you can say that’s positive and also true. Examples include: “You were a great team player today,” or “Your scales are getting better,” or “It’s great that you asked the teacher for help.”