As the summer temperatures starts to peak, children of all ages start preparing to head back to school. Typically there is a nervous energy surrounding the beginning of a new school year. There are new teachers and different students in unfamiliar classrooms. Families start shopping for back to school supplies and buying clothes for the upcoming year. For some, there is frantic reading as the reality strikes that there is little time to read required readings that have lay long dormant over the summer.
Along with the feverish preparations, there is a sense of hope about the upcoming school year. The hope that classes will go well and social relationships will be positive. As the first day of school comes and goes, children are usually excited and on their best behavior. This means assignments get completed, children get along with each other and the teacher, and the promise of a good school year beckons.
However, this halo of good times often does not continue throughout the rest of the school year. After a few weeks, the novelty of being back to school wears off and academic content gets more difficult as new concepts are introduced. This can lead many children to give less than their full effort as their motivation diminishes. This will not happen for all children but if the lack of effort has happened in the past, it will likely occur again.
However, the dip in motivation is not inevitable. Parents can take steps to have their children maintain their motivation past the beginning few weeks of the school year. The first step is to get involved with children’s homework and let them know they are available to answer any questions they may have. Parents should get into the habit of asking about what their children have learned in school that day and generally engage them academically. Parents may need to give a little more space with older children and adolescents as they can feel like they are under interrogation when too many questions are asked.
Another step is for parents to use rewards to encourage them to continue and complete homework. These rewards can be parents praising children’s efforts and giving hugs rather than more tangible rewards. This will pair the good feeling gained from receiving parent approval and attention to completing the challenging or burdensome task of doing homework. It is also important to break up homework time with small breaks which can help maintain children’s motivation to complete it.
A third step is for parents to let their children make mistakes and be able to learn from them. Letting them know that setbacks are natural and that no one does perfectly on every assignment and test can lower children’s anxiety and allow them to perform better.
Finally, parents should reach out to children’s teachers and work with them. Teachers will often have insights on what children are struggling with and may be able to share strategies to get children to complete their homework. Likewise, parents can alert teachers about methods that seem to work with children at home that may be effective at school. The close communication between home and school can be invaluable and head off little problems from becoming major ones.
As the school year begins, parents should take the opportunity to keep children’s school motivation high throughout the year. Becoming involved in children’s academic work, encouraging them when they are working on homework, letting them make mistakes and learn from them, and establishing good communications with their teachers are a recipe for keeping a school year going well.
Dan Florell, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University and has a private practice, MindPsi (www.mindpsi.net). Praveena Salins, M.D., is a pediatrician at Madison Pediatric Associates (www.madisonpeds.com).