Apathy in the Classroom: Rethinking motivation in school

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Since we’ve relocated to Beijing, my kids seem less motivated to do well in school. I’m not sure if it’s because they feel like we are on some sort of extended holiday or if this would have happened if we had stayed home. How does one motivate kids to study hard and care about learning? I don’t want to resort to bribery. – Concerned Parent

Iris Chan,
Vice Principal, Sino-Bright School

My parents were always trying to get me to learn a variety of different things when I was growing up: piano, ballet, pottery, piano, Chinese, Japanese, even the art of tea. Twenty-odd years later, I still have not become an expert in any of the aforementioned fields. Why wasn’t I motivated to stay with it?
I now realize that I never understood the value of what I was learning. Before I learned the piano, my parents did not take me to a piano concert. I never saw the beauty of the notes. Before I learned ballet, they never took me to see a production. I never saw the final outcome of years of practice and hard work. Before I learned the art of tea, they never taught me the value of tradition and ceremony. Before I learned Chinese, they never showed me the depth and beauty of the language. All I saw were the pages and pages of characters I had to get through. Thinking about it now, how could I be motivated to learn something if I didn’t know the value, beauty or purpose for what I was learning?
As an educator, I often reflect on my own experiences as a child to improve what I do every day. A vital part of motivating children to learn is to genuinely learn with them. It is by no means simply asking your child, “What did you do today in school?” or “What did you learn today?” because children are certainly good at sensing insincerity.
The first step to motivating children is to show excitement and curiosity for their learning. Parents may know the answers to most of the questions their child asks but they should refrain from taking away the process of learning and self-discovery. The next step is to show them the outcomes of what they are learning. What is the purpose of their learning?
Many of our students are studying a second language, and parents approach me with the same question: How do I accelerate their motivation to learn a new language? I tell them to learn with their child outside of the classroom. Go with them to a bookstore. Go with them to a movie. Go with them to a restaurant that uses that language. Go with them to visit places where the language is creatively and commonly used.  Show them you are an excited learner as well.
By showing them you are learning with them, as well as the purpose and the outcome of their learning, you can truly spark a child’s motivation. Moving to Beijing could be a significant factor in generating a sense of “extended holiday,” but this lack of
motivation is not uncommon.
As a parent, have you shown them the reason for them to care and feel excited about school and learning?

Devon Stafford
Upper Elementary School Counselor, International School of Beijing

Beijing is a culturally rich, dynamic, fast-paced and high-achieving educational arena. Some children rise to the challenge China brings to the table and some struggle to get there. The first key is trying to get to the bottom of the issue. One way to get at the root of the problem is trying to find out how things have changed since they moved to
Beijing. Asking open-ended questions such as, “What is the hardest thing about school?” or “What bothers you the most about school?” will allow your children to talk. Their answers can be a good way to learn about your children’s feelings. Even asking about their greatest hopes and fears for the new school year might be a way of opening the lines of communication. 
Let your children talk without judgment from you and really listen to what they are saying. Their feelings need to be validated and empathized. Their feelings could arise from a variety of issues, such as they don’t feel they are a strong student and are
comparing themselves to others. It could also be the pacing of the curriculum, the
transitional issues of missing friends and home or dealing with a new educational and cultural environment. Transition plays a huge part in the lives of expats and will be different for every individual, including you. Transition and adjustment can take anywhere from three weeks to 18 months. There are many factors that can play into the lack of motivation; I believe that finding out what is really going on in your children’s minds will help you to help them engage in the culture, the school and learning in general.
Once you have discovered your child’s major issues, try to develop some solutions together. Ask what they think will motivate them. Find something that they want to work for; it could be extra time at the park, going out for pizza and a movie, extra time on the DS or PlayStation – you can guide them to make a goal. When your child reaches that  goal, they feel part of the solution. They are not just doing it because their parents told them to. For younger children, charts with stickers or check marks that show progress towards a goal work really well.
Through active listening and looking at ways to stay positive and still achieve your goals, anything can be accomplished. Good luck!

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