Tips for Helping Your Child With Learning Disabilities Become More Motivated

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Parents and teachers are always balancing the question of whether a student with learning disabilities is doing the best work they can or if they are perhaps slacking off a bit because of a lack of motivation. Learning ways to cope with a child's lack of motivation is important to school success. Students who are naturally motivated to do their work are said to be intrinsically motivated. These students are satisfied with the feelings of accomplishment that come with encountering new or interesting situations, improving their skills, and doing quality work. Students who work because of the desire for external rewards are said to be extrinsically motivated. These students are motivated by things such as good grades, tangible rewards, and parental approval.

Why Internal Motivation Is Hard to Maintain

While internal motivation is highly desirable, many students with learning disabilities have difficulty maintaining that kind of motivation. Often this is because their struggles with learning make it difficult for them to feel the same satisfaction with their work that other students may feel. In other words, the anxiety and frustration they feel during the task can seem to outweigh any sense of accomplishment they feel afterwards.

However, there are some strategies parents and teachers can use that will increase a child's internal motivation. Some of these strategies are aimed at strengthening the student, and others are aimed at making the task or working conditions as favorable as possible.

Strategies aimed at strengthening the student's readiness to learn to include common-sense strategies such as making sure the student has adequate rest, eats a balanced diet, and maintains a productive and balanced schedule with a good mix of school work, exercise, and break time.

A student who maintains good health habits will have more of the mental and physical energy that is necessary to maintain motivation for a task.

Other strategies involve modifying the task itself to spark the student's interest. For example, rather than writing about how a volcano functions, a student with a learning disability might be better motivated by creating a model or making a poster demonstrating how the volcano functions. Furthermore, if that same child has a writing disability, working with other learning modalities may help the child learn and retain concepts more easily than by writing alone.

Motivating With External Rewards

Externally, or extrinsically, motivated students may improve motivation when given some type of positive reinforcement for working on a task. Rewards such as verbal praise, earning points or tokens to cash in for reward, and earning social recognition are just a few of the ways an externally motivated student can be encouraged to stay motivated with a task.

While some educators and parents may feel that this type of reinforcement is somehow artificial or undesirable, the reality is that most of us work for some type of external reward. How many of us would work every day if we were not paid?

The reality is that students with learning disabilities, just like everyone else, need a reward sometimes to get them moving on a task. This is especially true when the task involves an area of their disability. For example, a person with a reading disability like dyslexia may be more motivated to do reading assignments if they get some sort of external reward for the extra effort they must put into the task to be successful.

Other Motivational Problems and Their Solutions

There are a number of additional factors affecting motivation that may impact a child's performance in school.

Overwhelmed at School. Some students are simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of a task and cannot even get started because of the amount of work that needs to be done. These students can be helped by breaking tasks into smaller subtasks. This can help the student see a project as a series of smaller, manageable units rather than one big overwhelming monster.

Some students are afraid of failure. They think they know their limitations and believe that their failures will lead to public embarrassment, so they just don't try. In some cases, these students will misbehave to shift the focus from their inability to do the task to something else, anything else, that won't embarrass them.

These students can be helped by turning the possibility of failure into the opportunity for success. For example, allow the child to earn extra credit by correcting their mistakes. Allow them to choose from a menu of responses rather than having to generate their own responses to questions. Never ridicule a child for failure, and always treat mistakes as opportunities to learn.

Students need to know that everyone fails at times and that fixing mistakes is what everyone does to move forward.

Children with learning disabilities can also be bored with the work they've been asked to do. This is especially true if a teacher underestimates the child's abilities and gives them work that is beneath their actual ability levels. This type of boredom can be addressed by ensuring that the child is working at their ability level and is given some challenging work to keep them interested.

Relevance is also important to fend off low motivation. Children need to see and believe that schoolwork is meaningful to their lives. Teachers and parents can address this type of motivational problem by teaching children why what they are learning is important and by demonstrating how what they're learning can be immediately useful in their lives.

Problems in a child's life can also impact their motivation. Just like adults, children may be unable to do their work in school if something in their personal lives is causing them to have anxiety or depression. Children who are experiencing difficulty in this aspect of their lives may benefit from counseling.

Parents can be helpful in improving student motivation in many ways. Providing a nurturing and supportive home environment is one way. Setting clear expectations, providing guidance, and giving feedback on the child's work can also be helpful.

8 Sources
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By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.