My Child Is Not Interested in Learning: What Can I Do?

01/05/2015 06:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Little children are so curious. So why then are some parents faced with the challenge of motivating their child to read or practice math or do x,y,or z? Curiosity is only the very first step towards learning and mastery of skills. Mastery also demands persistence. Teachers face this problem all the time with a classroom full of learners of varying interests and abilities. But teachers get formal training that equips them to deal with this problem.

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Albert Bandura and Paul Pintrich have done much research on what drives self-regulated learners and on nurturing intrinsically motivated learners. Here are some suggestions (from their work) for parents to keep in mind when trying to motivate a child - without using either carrots or sticks.

4 factors need to be addressed when trying to develop a motivating learning environment:
  1. Self-Efficacy
  2. - Children need to have a strong sense of self-efficacy or be confident that they will be successful at the activity. "Growth mindset" or attribution theory are some other terms for this idea. Children need to realize that if they were unsuccessful once, it doesn't mean that they will always be unsuccessful - mindful practice can help address many shortcomings in ability.

Role models and peer groups also play a part in helping build a strong sense of self. It can be helpful for a child to see others like herself being successful at an activity she wants to master. Similarly, it is important for the child's role models (many times the parents) to reinforce and model lifelong learning. For instance, a parent should never say, "I am just bad at math". Instead she should say, "I dont know. Lets find out."

  • Knowledge
  • - Children need to have the basic tools to start. They need to know their ABCs, or basic vocabulary so that they are set up for success.
    do a great job of providing a safe sandbox in which players can master the basic skills needed to get going, following which the tasks fall within the
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  • Task Value
  • - Children need to know why what they are learning is important. Helping connect the new task or knowledge to their interests is always helpful. Or just showing how it relates to their world will also work. However, you dont need to craft an artificial connection to usefulness. You can honestly say that something is interesting just because there is beauty in an elegant solution or idea.
    is a wonderful essay on how math is like art and should be taught accordingly.

  • Choice
  • - Giving children some freedom in crafting their learning can go a very long way. The Montessori approach leverages this aspect very well. There is a clear leveling system that is visible and that also serves to provide clear goals and targets. Children can then choose the type of "work" they want to do, giving them a chance to exercise some freedom and increase their investment in their learning. As always some thought has to be given in determining what types of choice to offer the children. They are very sensitive to inauthenticity. For example, letting children choose the color of paper or pencils to use is not very meaningful. The act of choosing should give the child an opportunity to think about their learning.
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    These four aspects can help provide a starting point if you are struggling to engage your child. Do not be afraid to ask your child to reflect on her own learning and interests and to help develop a plan and strategy that she would be interested in executing.

    Meta cognition is a higher-order 21st century skill. "It includes knowledge about learning, knowledge of one's own learning strengths and weaknesses, and the demands of the learning task at hand. Metacognition also includes self-regulation -- the ability to orchestrate one's learning: to plan, monitor success, and correct errors when appropriate -- all necessary for effective intentional learning."

    Parents are the most powerful influencers in a child's life and are in the perfect position to help nurture not only meta-cognition, but also intrinsically motivated learners.

    It is never too early to start.