Blog Post: The role of parents in supporting their child’s school motivation

The role of parents in supporting their child's school motivation
Catherine F. Ratelle, Ph.D.

Université Laval

During the Hooked on School Days, important individuals in students’ lives are mobilized to offer them support in the last stretch of the school year marathon. Among them, we find parents, whose contribution to student development and well-being is the most global and stable. As their child's motivation can wane during the third and final term of the school year, parents wonder how they can best support their motivation.

Support their autonomy

Youths who are poorly motivated in school need to feel personal ownership and self-endorsement of their learning and to perceive its usefulness—namely, to feel autonomous as students. Parents support their autonomy when they try to see things from their perspective, by listening to their feelings and opinions, even when they are different from their own or even negative. By being empathetic and validating their perspective, parents allow their child to take responsibility for their actions and be self-determined.

“I understand you find this assignment boring.”

“It's okay to be discouraged at times.”

Parents who are autonomy supportive also take the time to explain to their child the importance of the school tasks that are assigned, which helps them internalize the value their schoolwork.

“When you learn grammar rules, it allows you to communicate with others so that they understand you.”

Finally, parents support their child’s autonomy when they allow them to hold age- and developmentally appropriate responsibilities and to make meaningful choices.

“When you receive your work plan, you can decide which day you want to do each task your teacher has given you.”

Show your involvement

Another way parents support their child's school motivation is to be involved in their lives. Involved parents create an environment where their child feels accepted, understood, and worthy of attention by showing them that they are important and by offering them supporting when needed. This support can be manifested by providing tangible resources to the child (e.g., subscribing to a science journal if they have a passion for the subject) but, most importantly, it is demonstrated via emotional resources. Specifically, emotionally involved parents use unconditional positive regard toward their child, show genuine interest for what is happening in their school life, devote time to them, encourage them, and show them their affection.

Provide structure

Parents can support their child’s school motivation by offering structure. Structuring parents make their child’s environment predictable so that they feel capable of achieving their goals. This involves clearly communicating family rules and expectations, specifying the natural consequences of following and breaking rules, by being consistent in enforcing rules and expectations as well as their consequences, and by maintaining supervision, when necessary. Structure also requires providing specific feedback to help children, when needed, and providing time and opportunities for them to follow rules and meet expectations.

Importantly, avoid harming

Parents can protect their child's school motivation by avoiding behaviors shown to be harmful:

  • being controlling (e.g., threatening, imposing one's way of doing/thinking, punishing or rewarding behavior, blaming)
  • being rejecting (e.g., ignoring, belittling, using abusive or insulting language, yelling or using a harsh tone, using sarcasm)
  • fostering chaos (e.g., changing rules and expectations without notice, being lax and using laissez-faire, using discipline in an arbitrary or inconsistent manner)

Being a parent is not always easy. You may recognize yourself in some of the practices you should avoid. Rather than judging yourself, we encourage you to be self-compassionate and reflect on what causes you to engage in these behaviors (e.g., fatigue, stress, your child's neurocognitive characteristics). Every day, you can improve as a parent by putting these good practices into action.

Suggested reading:

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (Faber & Mazlish)

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk (Faber & Mazlish)

Parenting according to self-determination theory 

Canada Research Chair on parenting and academic and vocational trajectories  

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