Motivating Struggling Learners

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I hear from parents every week whose are having trouble motivating their struggling learners. While they’re not outright refusing to learn, they’re bored, uninterested, and often procrastinate getting started and finishing assignments.

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As parents and educators, we can spend a lot of time searching for ways to ignite the spark of learning in our struggling learners. It can be challenging, but the key to unlocking their potential lies in fostering internal motivation. 

Internal motivation is the driving force that compels individuals to engage with enthusiasm, to persevere through difficulties, and to truly embrace the learning process. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore how the principles of self-determination theory can help us encourage internal motivation in struggling learners.

The Power of Self-Determination Theory in Motivating Struggling Learners

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), developed by Deci and Ryan, offers valuable insights into human motivation. According to SDT, people are naturally inclined to pursue activities that fulfill their basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Applying these principles in our homeschools can make a world of difference for our unmotivated, struggling learners.

1. Autonomy: Encouraging Independence

One of the core tenets of SDT is autonomy, which means allowing learners to have control over their learning process. For struggling homeschoolers, this might involve giving them choices with boundaries. For example, let them select the book for their next reading assignment, choose what subject to study for history, choose what subject to work on first each day, or choose the math problems they want to solve first. By granting autonomy, you empower them to take ownership of their education.

Some key components of autonomy include:

Choice: Autonomy involves the ability to act in accordance with one’s own preferences and desires. It emphasizes the importance of individuals making choices that are personally meaningful and driven by their own inner values.

Responsibility: It’s not just about making choices but also endorsing those choices as one’s own. Autonomy implies that individuals take ownership of their decisions and actions, feeling a sense of responsibility for them.

Internal Regulation: Autonomy is associated with intrinsic motivation, where individuals engage in activities because they find them inherently satisfying or enjoyable, rather than solely for external rewards or pressures.

When we cultivate a sense of autonomy for our kids, they are more likely to be self-motivated, engaged, and satisfied in their pursuits, leading to better overall psychological and emotional health.

2. Competence: Providing an Appropriate Level of Challenge

Competence is another vital component of internal motivation. Competence refers to the need to feel effective and capable in one’s actions and behaviors. It involves the desire to master new skills, tackle challenges, and experience a sense of accomplishment.

According to SDT, humans have an innate motivation to seek competence. This means that people are naturally inclined to engage in activities that allow them to demonstrate their abilities and skills.

To satisfy the competence need, our kids need opportunities to engage in tasks and activities that are neither too easy nor too difficult. Tasks that are too easy can lead to boredom, while tasks that are too challenging can result in feelings of incompetence and frustration.

Competence is closely tied to receiving feedback and recognizing progress. Positive feedback and a sense of improvement in skills help fulfill the need for competence. This aligns perfectly with the theory of Growth Mindsets set out by Dr Carol Dweck.

You can learn more about fostering a growth mindset in your kids here.

When our kids feel competent, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, meaning they engage in activities for the inherent satisfaction they provide, rather than external rewards or pressures.

Humans are inherently social creatures, and fostering a sense of relatedness can be a game-changer for struggling learners. 

Relatedness is about feeling understood, valued, and supported by others, which in turn contributes to a person’s overall psychological well-being. Relatedness refers to the need for social connection, belonging, and interpersonal relationships. It is the desire to feel connected to others, to experience a sense of belongingness, and to establish meaningful connections with family, friends, and social groups. 

Knowing they’re not alone in their journey can boost motivation and confidence.

When people feel connected to others and have positive relationships, they are more likely to be motivated and engaged in activities. Social support, positive interactions, and a sense of community can enhance an individual’s intrinsic motivation, which is the motivation that comes from within, rather than external rewards or pressures.

Here are some ways to incorporate relatedness into daily homeschool learning:

Peer Interaction: Arrange for opportunities for your child to interact with peers, either in person or virtually. This can include virtual study groups, online forums, or social activities where they can connect with other homeschoolers. Interacting with peers can provide a sense of belonging and social connection.

Family Involvement: Involve family members in the learning process. Encourage siblings or parents to participate in discussions, group projects, or collaborative activities. This fosters a sense of relatedness within the family unit.

Community Engagement:  Explore local community resources and activities that align with your child’s interests and learning goals. Joining clubs, teams, or community classes can help your child build relationships outside the home and feel a sense of belonging within the community.

Online Learning Communities:  Many online platforms and educational websites have forums or communities where homeschoolers can connect. Encourage your child to participate in these online communities to share experiences, ask questions, and engage with like-minded learners.

Cooperative Learning:  Incorporate cooperative learning activities into your homeschool curriculum. This involves group projects or activities where children work together to achieve a common goal. It promotes teamwork and a sense of relatedness among participants.

Celebrate Achievements: Recognize and celebrate your child’s achievements, no matter how small. Create a supportive and encouraging atmosphere at home where your child feels valued and appreciated for their efforts.

Share Interests: Explore your child’s interests and hobbies together. Whether it’s a shared interest in a particular subject, hobby, or activity, engaging in these together can strengthen the parent-child bond and provide a sense of relatedness.

Peer Mentoring: If your child is older or more advanced in a particular subject, consider allowing them to mentor or tutor younger siblings or other homeschoolers. This not only builds relatedness but also enhances their own understanding of the material.

Regular Check-Ins: Have regular check-ins with your child to discuss their progress, interests, and any concerns they may have. Make sure they know that you are there to support and listen to them.

By incorporating relatedness into daily homeschool learning, you can help your child feel connected, motivated, and supported, which can contribute to their overall well-being and academic success.

Practical Strategies for Motivating Struggling Learners

Now that we’ve delved into the core principles of SDT, let’s explore a few more practical strategies to nurture internal motivation in struggling learners.

1. Find Their Passions

Discovering a learner’s passions can be a powerful motivator. Encourage them to explore various subjects and activities until they find something that truly excites them. Once they’ve identified their passion, weave it into their learning experience. For instance, if a child loves animals, use animal-themed books for reading practice or integrate zoology concepts into their science curriculum.

2. Set Realistic Goals

Help struggling learners set achievable goals. Goals should be specific, measurable, and tailored to their abilities. Break larger objectives into smaller milestones so that they can experience a sense of accomplishment along the way. This approach aligns with the competence aspect of SDT, reinforcing their belief in their capabilities.

3. Provide Constructive Feedback

Feedback is essential for growth, but it must be delivered thoughtfully. Offer specific, constructive feedback that highlights what they did well and suggests areas for improvement. Avoid criticism that damages their self-esteem. Remember, encouragement goes a long way in nurturing internal motivation.

4. Make Learning Fun

Injecting fun into the learning process can transform it from a chore into an enjoyable journey. Incorporate games, hands-on activities, and interactive lessons into their curriculum. The more we can make learning an adventure filled with discovery and excitement the better.

5. Offer Choices

Remember the autonomy principle of SDT? Let struggling learners make choices within boundaries. Whether it’s selecting a book to read or deciding on a project topic, providing options gives them a sense of control and ownership over their education.

6. Be Patient and Supportive

Struggles are a part of the learning process. Be patient and offer unwavering support. Encourage them to embrace challenges as opportunities to grow. Remind them that setbacks are stepping stones towards success.

The Joy of Witnessing Internal Motivation

When we apply the principles of Self-Determination Theory and incorporate these practical strategies into our approach, we create an environment where struggling learners can thrive. It’s a journey that requires patience, dedication, and unwavering belief in their potential. As parents and educators, we have the incredible privilege of nurturing internal motivation in our children, watching as they blossom into lifelong learners.



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