Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

How to motivate your kids in school

It's the final stretch of the school year: Your kids are burned out, they've been hit with spring fever and they lack motivation. We explain how to encourage them, whether their latest report card shows they're struggling, just getting by or excelling.

Struggling student

Poor grades on assignments and low test scores can be difficult for parents to swallow, but scolding a child won't help, says Kali Trzesniewski, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London, who researches motivation and academic achievement.

Story continues below advertisement

"I think one thing that's very important is no matter what's on the report card, the child is great. There's fear that if you disappoint your parents, you're not as worthy of their love," she says.

The Globe's Back to School Guide

And while poor grades may tempt parents to carry their child through school, that type of help creates dependency and isn't sustainable in the long term, warns Annie Kidder, executive director of Toronto-based parent group People for Education.

"The day-to-day fighting over school doesn't really necessarily [help] but talking to your child about, 'What do you think would have made a difference?' will," she says.

Middle of the pack

If you want to help a child with satisfactory grades bump them up to excellent ones, think beyond the actual work he or she is completing in class, suggests Stuart Shanker, a professor of philosophy and psychology at York University in Toronto who studies brain development.

A high-achieving child will often fall back when puberty hits, which may have more to do with a desire to relate to peers and express independence from parents than anything else, he says.

Story continues below advertisement

"The worst thing that can be done is to yell at him," Dr. Shanker says. Instead of harping on your child to finish his homework or sitting down with him to do it, encourage peer learning.

You can also boost your child's academic performance by getting him or her involved in extracurricular activities, says Linda Cameron, an associate professor of education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

"Look for some new activity that will inspire new things: soccer, T-ball, an arts group," she suggests. "The same old makes us all droopy and dull-headed."

Research suggests that this kind of non-academic stimulation - as opposed to surfing the Net or watching TV - can have positive effects on classroom learning, Dr. Shanker says.


Parents of a high-achiever may feel their child is set to always do well, but heaping praise can actually hinder his or her success, Dr. Trzesniewski says.

Story continues below advertisement

"If you're constantly told, 'You just do great work, you're just so smart,' at some point things are going to get a little harder," she says. And when a child does encounter work that is difficult and requires hard work, it could injure self-esteem.

The key to keeping a successful student going is to constantly challenge them, Dr. Shanker says.

The solution can be as simple as giving them opportunities to study their favourite subjects at an advanced level. He has noticed dramatic improvements in children who joined the school's science club or competed in weekend math competitions.

"The worst thing we can do with those kids is bore them," he says.

And don't do this … tell your kid you'll buy him a toy if he gets a good grade. Instead, teach him that academic success is self-rewarding.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Globe Newsletters

Get a summary of news of the day

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at