How to motivate young learners to build skills and acquire knowledge

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Can you remember the first time you truly felt motivated to do something? What were you motivated to do? What was it that motivated you?

The answers will vary greatly, from those who felt motivated to simply succeed because they were told they couldn’t, to others who were motivated by financial gain. Some may have first experienced the feeling because they knew exactly what they wanted to do as a career for the rest of their life, and the thrill and enjoyment of knowing they were doing something they loved was supreme motivation. 

Anyway, the specific answer doesn’t really matter, but the point I’m getting to is, how do you spark that type of motivation in a child? How do you encourage someone who hasn't really reached a level of pride to develop an “I’ll show you” mentality, or one who doesn’t really care yet about earning anything financially, or what they want to do when they get older? 

With kids, they know and are engrossed with what’s in front of them, and don’t really pay any mind to what might be waiting years or even weeks down the road. 

So, how do you motivate such young learners? Both those who need a spark to get started, and those who need a kickstart to curb back to school burnout.

I’m speaking from the perspective of a parent because that’s what I know and have experience with—how to motivate kids to work on their own without being told; how to motivate kids to continue learning from home the things they’re learning at school; how to motivate kids to learn things they might not ever even learn in school. 

All of that said, some of the general guiding points can be applied - to an extent - inside the classroom as well, with the overall goal, no matter who is reading this, to motivate children to keep moving themselves forward. 

How to motivate young learners

1. Ask questions

Of course, we say a lot of things like kids “can’t,” “don’t,” or “won’t,” but sometimes we don’t know, and are just guessing or assuming. In this case, it might be the thinking that “No, that wouldn’t motivate my student,” but do we really know that?

The best way to approach it, then, is to ask. Ask them what they enjoy, what they are learning about, and how they like learning about those things. 

Of course, we can’t let young learners dictate their days, but if we know there is so much in front of them that they should be learning, is there any harm in asking what they want to learn about today, and then asking again tomorrow in hopes that their answers change as they progress?

Now, if the answer is always the same, and kids aren’t motivated to learn anything but the one thing they keep mentioning, then it’s time to move on to another approach. 

2. Connect learning with their interests

It’s a basic idea but one we seem to overlook at times. For instance, if I want my son to read more at home, I can probably increase his motivation to do so by giving him books about Lightning McQueen and other Pixar characters. 

There are countless examples and opportunities in this regard, and it doesn’t mean you have to go out and “buy all the things.” You might, however, have to use your imagination at times to think about how something like baseball can help kids learn arithmetic, or how to replace video games with different yet related hobbies, etc. 

3. Play to their curiosities

What is one thing most kids are above anything else? Curious. "Why," "why," "why;" and "when;" "but what about XYZ.," etc.

Once a certain age is hit, the questions come fast and furious. And, no answer is good enough, and “just because” is more of an invitation for additional questions than it is the conversation-stopper you had hoped it would be. 

So, use that to your advantage. Introduce something new and see what happens. Put something in front of young learners without context or conversation other than “here you go,” and see what happens. You might get further by saying less, and allowing kids’ curiosities fuel the questions, which in turn can fuel their motivation. 

4. Introduce gamification

Gamification is powerful for all of us of at any age. For kids, it offers a built-in motivation system. 

Meaning, many kids might not be motivated because they don’t know what they don’t know. A gamification system introduces structure, and dangles a carrot. Now they see what’s in front of them; they see their progress, and make the connection between that progress and attainment, and are then motivated to engage. 

5. Try different types of learning

Even just a few years ago, you hear "learning" and you might immediately think school, or even only think school. But today, education is much different, and comes in many different shapes and sizes. 

So, if kids aren't motivated from their everyday schooling, give online tutoring a shot, or if during the summer and looking for inspiration, a virtual summer camp. There are also after school centers, self-paced online education portals, school clubs, and so much more. 

6. Give them feedback, on the good and bad

Last, the ultimate piece, right? Encourage the good behaviors and extinguish the bad. The benefits of offering praise are obvious—it reinforces the behavior, makes kids feel good, and motivates them to achieve that feeling more and more. 

And then, when you see them heading down the wrong path, letting them know starts to build accountability, and from that accountability comes the motivation to want to please and show us as parents that they are capable of doing what’s being asked of them. 

You’re already on the right track

Meaning if you’re here and researching how to motivate your child or student to learn more, or even better, to want to learn more, you’re already on the right track. There are a ton of variables at play here, so some things will work, and some won't at all. 

But, as parents or as educators, naturally, we will continue to try and do what’s best for our young minds, so perhaps the final tip is to just simply give ourselves a break, and try to look at things not through the lens of “what am I doing wrong” and instead “it’s only a matter of time.”

A photo of Ryan

Ryan has been in EdTech and with iD Tech for 13 years—building experience, expertise, and knowledge in all things coding, game development, college prep, STEM, and more. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn

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