Meet our 2020 Blog Writing Runner Up - Gail Hugman who shares her top tips on motivating children.


Motivating Children: It’s Not as Difficult as You Think


Parents will often talk to me about motivating their child and it usually has something to do with schoolwork. Their child may be bright but ‘coasting’, may ‘hate’ reading, maths or some other subject and consequently, may be unhappy, frustrated and/or underperforming in tests or exams. As parents, you’re desperate to correct teacher complaints of disruptive behaviour, poor listening, and lack of concentration. It seems as if you’re constantly nagging, and you feel awful punishing them because it’s reminiscent of your youth. However, you also want them to have as many opportunities as possible but feel that nothing you do or say can change their disruptive behaviour.

You understand there will be sometimes be difficulties and challenges during the ever-evolving journey through childhood, and you turn yourself inside out trying to support your child without conflict.

So here are a couple of clues I’ve discovered on my expedition through teaching that will perhaps make it easier for you.

Your starting place needs to be with the Bigger Picture.

Like little acorns that turn into big oak trees, nature equipped your little person from birth with everything they need to be a big person. Essentially, the intelligence is there, and the systems are all in place for them to fully function. The only things missing are knowledge of the world they’ve been born into and what they are meant to do here. This is where your child is intuitively based, and most important to consider, they rely on feelings to guide their decisions.

The first period of life – up to puberty - is when they automatically build references; develop skills; learn to communicate and train their brain to think. It will really help your child to engage if you let them know that they can help this process along, otherwise they can be left feeling that life is happening ‘to’ them and they must ‘wait’ until they grow up before they can DO anything.

If it has not been explained that what you are asking them to do gives them:

  • useful knowledge
  • helps them to grasp a skill or
  • greater experience

Their untrained brain does not always know what to do with it and they are likely to feel confused, lose interest and reject it.

Focus on one thing at a time

Another obstacle that never fails to turn them off, is people talking too quickly for them to process. Young children, under ten years old, process around seven words in one go. Taking a deep breath followed by saying, ‘let’s do your spellings now, it says you’ve got to learn these, think of some interesting sentences and do it in your best writing..’  is a sure-fire way to overload the brain and cause trouble. You need to focus on one thing at a time.

Tips on Spelling!

If you really want to get the spellings done, you first need to explain that this is to help them build their reference or library of information outlining the purpose of the exercise; you tell them that there are twenty words, but you’re only going to do five right now and come back later. This is to help their brain manufacture exactly the right amount of energy for the task.     If you think they have the stamina to do more, then do more, but we’re talking about motivation here and if your child is struggling with getting through it, you need to break it into bite-sized chunks for them and gradually build it up.

    • Next, take the first spelling word and ask them to read it. Stop. Remember, they cannot process too many words spoken at a time!
    • Make sure they understand what the spelling word means.
    • Give an example sentence using that word. Point out when they may have heard that word before so that their brain sees how to start to make connections. Stop.
    • Brainstorm a few more sentences with the word, meanwhile remembering their knowledge of the world is not as extensive as yours so help them think of ‘an interesting sentence’ (there is much that could be said about what that actually is, but that’s a whole other blog!). Stop.
    • Repeat the sentence they choose back to them. Stop.
    • Ask them if they’ve got it. Stop.
    • Ask them to repeat it to you. Stop.
    • Tell them to write it down. Stop.
    • When finished, congratulate them on what they did well!

Yes. It is labour intensive! However, while you’re doing this, your child’s brain is frantically busy making neural pathways. If you’re sitting with them and making sure that they are getting success, they will feel supported and that you’re on their side. Their brain will get the confirmation it needs that it is ‘doing it right’, and that you ‘get it’. They will then become more willing, excited, and keen in their learning. I have yet to meet a child who isn’t chuffed to bits when they have really focused, achieved something and you say a genuine, heartfelt, ‘Well done!’.  It needn’t take more than fifteen minutes to get through five spellings. You will then be able to gradually increase the workload from one word at a time, to two words then several. Over a period of a month, they will begin to do it on their own, with a little input on the ‘interesting’ bit, from you.

Dealing with Teenagers

You might be frustrated because you got through that phase without too much difficulty, but now you’re facing a recalcitrant teenager. This is a different kettle of fish all together. The recalcitrant teenager is more likely to be the one who aggressively spits out ’why should I?’ whilst reaching for their PS4. You get that awful sinking feeling as you mutter, ‘so you get a good job when you leave school…’, letting it trail off, knowing it doesn’t really cut it when you’re up against technology and the lure of games like Call of Duty or GTA5!

Teenagers like to think they know it all while secretly knowing they don’t. If that sounds like a paradox, you’re absolutely right! But that is their Achilles heel. That is where you can get a look in.

What teenagers need is a listener, a sympathiser, someone who respects them as the individual they are. They don’t need someone who is going to tell them what to do, (‘that’s for little kids’), but someone who can see the difficulties and feelings they are struggling with and who can advise, suggest and discretely lead; not someone who talks about what it was like when they were teenagers, that was a whole different planet ago, but someone who can empathise, see the gaps in their skills and can almost invisibly guide them to success.

Teens need a shoulder to lean on more than ever (but don’t tell them I said so). They need the ‘bigger picture’ too, which may involve that job you were talking about, but using different words. They need to understand how things work in the real world, what is happening in them and to be able to talk freely about their feelings; their struggles; what works, what doesn’t and what they want to do without fear of criticism or they will run a mile. Judgement and criticism are the turn-off as is anything to do with your life, your partner’s life or granny’s life.

You need to be NOW, alongside and with them, sharing their concerns, doubts and fears. If it is work they won’t do, they definitely need the bigger picture in terms of how things work in the culture, what impressions others take and how to keep options open for themselves.  An understanding, ‘you don’t seem happy, is there something I can do to help?’ might be appreciated if offered with no hidden agenda.

Lack of motivation

Motivating anyone to do anything they don’t immediately want to do requires Herculean effort unless you understand where the pitfalls are likely to be and learn techniques to navigate your way through. If you are with an unmotivated child or young person, don’t think back to when you were their age, but think back to when they were last motivated. What has happened since that has thrown the switch?

Could they feel: Overwhelmed? Unappreciated? Confused? Or do they feel the expectations on them are unrealistic, too low, or too high? Talk to them, person to person, in listening mode and they may surprise you. It’s your way in to helping to motivate them

A very concerned mum once sought my advice because her young son had suddenly become reluctant to go to school which seemed so out of character. His work was suffering; he looked unhappy and so did she. She had gone through everything she could think of to help him; including talking to his teacher who was also becoming concerned, but no one had actually asked him.  It may seem obvious to you and me now, but you know what it’s like when you’re consumed by worry and your brain starts manufacturing all kinds of unhelpful things. It happens to all of us and even the most obvious things can vanish from sight. The next time I saw her, she looked ten years younger! The mystery was solved. He didn’t want to go to school because his seat was next to the window, his classroom was too cold, and he didn’t know who to tell or what to do about it.

Sometimes, motivational issues can seem very, very small to us, but almost insurmountable to people who have little reference and experience. Our job is to act detective, looking at what they see and feel.


Offering help

Teenagers often look and sound so capable; they may have ‘swagger’ that can be masking a deep insecurity about how to organise themselves for independent study (did anyone actually teach them those skills or has it been assumed which, I’m afraid, is often the case). If they are not going to feel embarrassed or humiliated, they need someone who knows them really well, who won’t undermine their delicate persona, to lead them to success. If you spot your child is struggling in this area, it’s likely you’ll get a better response by saying something like, ‘Great, you’ve reached the stage where you can learn to organise your study yourself! Are you ok with that or can I give you a hand? It can take a while to get your head around it!’ If you sense your teen has run into trouble, asking an open question gives them the opportunity to tell you how to help and is likely to be a huge relief to everyone involved!

Success increases motivation

Motivation to do their work is normally only a problem when children struggle to see the point of it, feel under undue pressure or fail to achieve success because they are left to get on with it at the most critical time in their development. Anyone who celebrates success, no matter how small, wants more of it and that is one of the best motivators going!

If you need any help with motivating children or how to talk to them about the bigger picture, contact Gail Hugman at

Visit her website: Author of: 100 Things to Learn before you’re 10 and A Short and Simple Book for the Why’s available from: