As any frustrated parent would know, getting a child to study hard can be quite challenging. We want to see our little ones fulfil their potential, do well in exams, and be equipped for the competitive workplace of the future.

But what if they seem unmotivated to do their best at school? What if they just refuse to study, or keep procrastinating doing their homework? What if they don’t seem at all worried about a coming test or exam?

As parents, we want to maintain a balance in our parenting—we want to make sure our kids do as well as they can without over-stressing or discouraging them.

But how can we motivate and encourage our children without pushing them too hard, or even driving them in the opposite direction? How can we tackle distractions fairly and wisely?

To address these and other questions, we first need to understand the things that can demotivate our children.

 

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The following is an edited transcript of our Parenting Chats video series [https://biblical-parenting.org/tag/parenting-chat/] on helping children cope with studies and exams. Watch the sessions here.

Why Kids May Feel Demotivated

If you find your child unmotivated, the first thing you can do is to determine exactly what demotivates him or her.

It could be a subject they don’t like, or difficulty understanding something at school. They might be unable to see the need for homework or tests. It could even be an issue of fear or stress.

We may discover, especially around exam-time, that our children may try to “deflect” study stress by playing games or burying themselves under all kinds of activities, simply to avoid facing what they dread.

To find out what might be causing their lack of motivation, we need to really observe them and how they operate in various situations. Do they behave differently depending on whether it’s an English, mother tongue, or maths test coming up? Do they talk about teachers they like or dislike? What kinds of homework do they enjoy—or dread? What things seem to distract them the most?

To find out what might be causing their lack of motivation, we need to really observe them and how they operate in various situations.

We also need to talk to them, and really listen to what they say. As we talk to them, let us heed the guidance found in Ephesians 6:4—“do not exasperate your children”—as we seek to engage them.

Instead of telling them off and demanding answers, for example, we can choose to ask them indirect questions.

The direct question, “What motivates you?”, may be difficult to answer. Instead, try asking, “What is your favourite subject?” or “What subject do you struggle with most?” This can help us identify whether the issue at hand is lack of interest or lack of ability.

If the issue is lack of interest in a school subject, we can then ask ourselves: “How can we make learning interesting?” Or, if the issue is a lack of ability, “How can we help them learn?”

Build Motivation

Here are three practical ways we can motivate our kids:

1. Give little rewards. We don’t need big, expensive gifts to motivate our kids; small but meaningful things, like snacks, are enough. Sometimes, when I see my elder son studying late into the night, I cook him a bowl of instant noodles as comfort food.

Or, when I give them a study break and game time, I’ll join in the game or watch a show with them. It’s not only about giving them time to play, but also about making things fun for them and showing them that we are willing to involve ourselves in their interests.

Sometimes, my wife and I would also reward our kids before their exam results are out, to show them that it is their effort we want to affirm, not just the result.

2. Make things easier along the way. Consider breaking down big assignments or tasks into smaller ones, and rewarding your children for each small task completed.

This can break down the monotony of studying and make the learning process more enjoyable. When our children find it easier to see the fruit of their efforts, then half the battle against their lack of motivation is won.

3. Encourage with biblical promises. The Bible offers much encouragement to children through God’s promise of His presence and strength. For example:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,
whenever you face trials of many kinds, because
you know that the testing of your faith produces
perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work
so that you may be mature and complete,
not lacking anything.”
—James 1:2–4

This passage can remind our children that difficult times are God’s way of building faith and perseverance, which will help them mature. There is value in their struggles—not necessarily in doing well at school, but in seeing God do something in their lives.

We can assure our kids that they just need to do their part in preparing for exams, knowing that God is working out His good purpose in their lives, often in His own time and way.

Romans 8:28 can also help reassure children who feel anxious about exam results:

“And we know that in all things God works
for the good of those who love him,
who have been called according to his purpose.”

We can assure our kids that they just need to do their part in preparing for exams, knowing that God is working out His good purpose in their lives, often in His own time and way. The results may not be what we hope for, but we can trust in God—He knows what is best for us as His children.

Of course, we shouldn’t turn these verses into something for our kids to memorise or mechanically copy. Instead, we can use Scripture to help them understand how God works in their lives, so they can trust Him even in the midst of study stress.

Don’t Compare

One unhelpful thing when trying to motivate our children is comparing them with others. Asking questions like “How did your friends do?” or “Why can’t you be like them?” will only discourage our kids. It is good enough that they did their best.

We also need to be careful not to assess our kids according to our own expectations. We may personally believe that they ought to progress at a certain pace or obtain certain grades. But if they are already putting in effort, we should celebrate that.

We also need to be careful not to assess our kids according to our own expectations.

One tendency that some parents have is continually raising the bar of success. They stress that their kids need to do much better the next time—even though they’d already met the last set of expectations.

Such an approach will only make our children unhappy. They may feel like they’re never meeting our expectations.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we cannot raise the bar appropriately. Rather, we need to remember to take time to celebrate their successes before sitting down together and agreeing on new goals.

Tackle Distractions

Even with the right motivation, children can and do get easily distracted. Distractions include TV shows, online games, social media, and any number of other things. All these can have a detrimental effect on their learning and attention span.

Removing such distractions is important as doing so would help our children to better concentrate as they study.

However, we need to be aware that removing them in too abrupt a manner can incite a very strong reaction—especially if it’s their phone that’s at stake.

It would be best to warn or prepare your children in advance, before taking any action. For example, we can say, “If you’re not able to concentrate on your homework without playing on your phone, we’ll have to put it aside for the next hour,” before actually taking away the phone.

This will help them understand what’s happening. Instead of feeling like they’re being punished, our children would hopefully understand why we removed the source of their distraction: to help them to resist temptation.

Instead of feeling like they’re being punished, our children would hopefully understand why we removed the source of their distraction: to help them to resist temptation.

Personally, I give my sons a few chances before confiscating their gadgets. I remind them to keep a lookout for their own distractions. After two or three infringements, I tell them that I will remove the source of their distraction the next time because it isn’t helping them. And I will take it away from them.

This is important—it shows them that it wasn’t an empty threat, and I meant what I said. By that time, my actions shouldn’t have come as a big surprise to them.

If any of my sons reacts strongly to this, I leave him alone to cool down for a while before revisiting our agreement.

At that point, I remind him that we had talked about the matter before, and that the confiscation isn’t permanent anyway. I assure him that if he meets certain conditions to show that he is better prepared to handle distraction, I could reinstate what was taken away.

The challenge to us as parents is to always reinstate what we removed, and go even further to reward improved behaviour. This makes it a fairer deal and helps our children to understand why we do the things we do.

Make Learning Fun

Ultimately, the best way we can motivate our kids to study is to make the learning journey fun. Of course, this may not be possible during the exam period itself. But we can work on building up sources of motivation throughout the year, especially when the exams are some time away.

The key is to help our children feel like they want to be a part of their own learning journey, so that they find the motivation to learn within themselves.

The key is to help our children feel like they want to be a part of their own learning journey, so that they find the motivation to learn within themselves.

Remember: if our child has an inquiring mind and wants to learn, half the battle may well have been won. Our job, in this case, would be to affirm to them that they are doing okay.

More importantly, let us endeavour to point our children to the gospel of the Lord. May we model Christ’s loving discipline and gentle encouragement as we guide them through seasons of study, revision, and exams.

 

Adapted from our “Parenting Chats” video series on helping children cope with studies and exams. Watch the sessions here.

 

Lim Chien Chong has been with the Singapore Youth For Christ since 1998, and is its Teaching & Resource Director. He serves in the pulpit, Bible class and children’s ministry in his church, and teaches in churches and youth groups across Singapore. He has been married for 20 years and has two teenage sons.
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