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How To Motivate Your Kids To Learn

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

Found in: Classroom Management

That dilemma has had teachers tearing their hair out since time immemorial. How can you get students to want to learn? Some students arrive at your door already eager, but what about the others?

Hundreds of strategies have been tried and there’s no consensus on the right path. But here are seven approaches recommended by accomplished teachers that you can try.

Build strong relationships.

“Let kids know you genuinely care about them, that it’s not just a job that finishes at 3 p.m.,” says third-grade inclusion teacher Charlene Christopher of Norfolk, Virginia.

“If kids like you, they’ll perform for you,” says Jim McNeil in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Kids know you can’t become too familiar with them, but let them see you as a human being.”

There’s no simple formula for getting your relationship with students right. “I’m respectful to my students,” says McNeil, “and in turn, they know that if they’re disrespectful, I’ll call them on it. Also, I use a lot of humor—that works for me.”

Tell them why it matters.

“Tell your kids why you’re doing what you’re doing, especially if you’re assigning something repetitious and tedious.” says Michelle Wise Capen, an elementary teacher who’s now a curriculum coach in Lenoir, North Carolina. “Even in kindergarten—a child will work harder at his handwriting if you sit down and tell him he’s building up his finger muscle strength. Make sure they understand you’re not just bossing them around.”

Give them a voice and a choice.

Many schools suffer from curricula that prescribe in great detail what must be covered, but you usually can let students make some decisions about what and how they learn. They’ll work harder if they have a say. Oklahoma English teacher Kevin McDonald was teaching Othello to his AP students and his lower level class insisted on reading it. So he scrapped his plans for them. The language was tough, but “it’s about jealousy, revenge, cultural bias. These White kids from rural Oklahoma could identify with a Black Muslim from Italy who gets tricked.”

Make it fun.

That’s not just for elementary school. In Pennsylvania, Jim McNeil had his seventh-grade students write their own obituaries. They could marry anyone they chose—many picked celebrities—but the exercise also got them thinking about where they had been and where they planned to go.

Make it relevant.

Los Angeles fifth-grade teacher Sharon Harrison takes her students to the grocery store to see decimals in action.

The better you know each student, the better you can apply this strategy. Every September, Harrison surveys her students about their interests. Whenever possible, she writes those interests into her lesson plans, which can be as simple as using them in arithmetic word problems.

Make it real.

Plan lessons so that students accomplish something that matters to them. The National Writing Project, through which thousands of English teachers have improved their practice, recommends writing for real audiences, such as newspaper editors, parents, or public officials. History classes can build an exhibit on their neighborhood’s history at a local community center. Elementary school children can “publish” their own stories, complete with artwork, and read them to kindergarten students. In Phoenix, Arizona, Allan Cameron has led mostly low-income, immigrant high school students in national robot competitions. Many kids have gone on to college and good careers. “[The robot competition] is a real task, not a worksheet,” says Cameron. “We’re counting on them. If someone puts the wheels on wrong, we all lose.”

Use technology.

Renee Moore, who taught high school English in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest places in the country, says many students didn’t want their friends to know they were interested in school. But online, they were free of the peer pressure.

In 1994, she hooked up her class with a school in Soweto, South Africa. They discussed two novels, one South African and one American. “I had boys who wouldn’t let you know they had read a novel unless you demanded an answer,” says Moore, “but they were excited about their correspondence with the Soweto kids. They would show it to me privately.”

These days, it’s easier to use the Internet to get your students’ creative juices flowing. Moore recommends the free K-12 Online Conference.


Problem Solver

I teach writing to low-income, minority students. Many of them come to me not liking school and convinced they can’t do the work. What can I do?

An answer:

First step: Show that you respect these students and their work by getting them to write about subjects that matter to them. Encourage them to develop what they say. Don’t pick up your red pencil!
Second step: Once they’re involved in telling their stories and ideas, get them to correct their own English mechanics, one rule at a time. You explain the rules, but they find and fix the mistakes.
—Linda Christensen, Portland, Oregon


Controversy: Should we reward students?

No More Pizza

No pizza parties, no gold stars, no free passes on homework. Rewards motivate students to get rewards, not to learn.

On the contrary, when you reward students for learning, you’re telling them learning is not worth doing for its own sake. Our message to children should be that the reward for reading a great book is a story that inspires or moves them, not coupons to Pizza Hut. Otherwise, when the coupons stop, so will the reading.

Studies show that when people are rewarded for doing something, they’ll do it now, but they are less likely to do it again later.

Certainly not everything worth learning is fun and exciting. I don’t remember being thrilled learning my times tables, but man, am I glad I did. But I believe every teacher should be able to answer their students’ question, “Of what value is this to my life?” with an answer more meaningful and profound than “It’s on the exam!”

Nothing is more contagious than a teacher’s enthusiasm for what he or she teaches. I have met teachers who could have made a lesson on doorknobs interesting because they found the subject so fascinating.

When I’m planning a lesson, I ask myself, “If I were a student listening to this, would I find it interesting and meaningful?” If the answer is “no,” I start over until the answer is “yes.” To date (knock on a desk), I haven’t had to hand out one Tootsie Pop.

John Perricone, High school health educator, Endwell, New York

(Perricone is the author of Zen and the Art of Public School Teaching. Visit his Web site at

I disagree 100 percent.

If a student scores high on a test, I may buy him or her a pack of cookies, which costs me a dollar. On the final exam, I offer $5 for every top level score. That excites students.

For ninth- and tenth-graders, I put stars on the wall with their names on them if they do well. For older students, I may give double credit for high scores. They care about their GPA, but the younger students want immediate gratification.

I don’t reward students every time they do anything. Altogether, I probably spend $100 a year. But rewarding them for doing a great job—that’s what industry does; it’s the way the world works. Maybe if I were in an upper-middle class area, the reward would be to make a presentation to the faculty. But in my high-poverty area, money works. But it’s not mostly the dollars. It’s the fact that I would take my money and invest in them—that’s not what they’re used to.

Mary Ward, Business skills teacher, East Halifax, North Carolina

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