6 Tips to Stay Motivated Throughout the School Year
It’s a marathon, not a sprint, says an expert who offers advice to help students, teachers, and parents build motivation that will go the distance.
For many students and teachers, the start of the new school year has added a new set of challenges to the big ones they’ve already been dealing with for nearly two and a half years. And though it may be simple enough to “switch on” motivation to get things done in the short term, sustaining it throughout the entire year is a different matter, according to a researcher at the University of Alberta.
To help prepare students and teachers for the year ahead, Lia Daniels, professor in the Department of Educational Psychology shares a few tips and tricks to strengthen motivation for the long haul.
1. Praise the process, not the person
When it comes to giving students a boost as they battle with their motivation during tough stretches, Daniels recommends avoiding phrases like, “You’re so smart,” noting that this kind of “person praise” can be damaging to motivation.
“Sometimes when we praise people, it starts to become tied to identity and self-worth,” she explains. This can cause issues if a student encounters a situation that’s more difficult. Suddenly, they don’t just doubt their ability to complete that task — they begin to doubt everything about who they are, causing their motivation to plummet.
Instead, shift your praise to statements that focus on the process, such as, “You worked really hard on that,” or, “I can see you invested a lot of time in this.” These are more helpful for building long-term motivation.
2. Cultivate a growth mindset
People with a growth mindset believe their abilities and skills can grow and change over time, whereas those with a fixed mindset assume that’s just not possible.
“A lot of motivation exists in our heads. It’s our thoughts, our thought processes, that influence the decisions we make,” she says. For example, a child who feels they’ve never been and never will be good at mathematics may struggle in math class because of their fixed mindset. A child who is at the same general skill level at the start of the semester but who believes they can learn the concepts, even if in a different way or in a different time frame than their peers, will progress more and be more motivated to do so.
3. Prioritize motivation from within
Intrinsic motivation is more effective in the long term. “Extrinsic motivation is anytime we bring something external to a student to get them to do something,” she explains. To build intrinsic motivation, three basic psychological needs must be met: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Competence involves “giving students an opportunity to feel like they are growing and making progress, having the right level of challenge.”
Autonomy is a matter of cultivating an environment where students have a choice, even if it’s something simple.
Relatedness is the process of teachers wanting to know more about their students and learn about who they are.
4. Know there’s a time and place for extrinsic motivation
Daniels notes that extrinsic motivation can be effective in certain scenarios when a little boost is needed but should be used sparingly. “If the intrinsic motivation is not online, sometimes we need to use external things to trigger it, to bring it online, and then peel them back a little bit and replace them with this basic psychological satisfaction.”
One reason external motivators are less effective is that we’re always weighing them to determine whether the reward is worth the effort — and the goalposts often change because “kids are really smart,” says Daniels. One week, a single cookie might be enough to convince them to do their homework, but the price might go up to two cookies the following week. This kind of weighing doesn’t occur with intrinsic motivation, which is why it’s a more solid foundation for long-term motivation.
5. Appeal to interests
Whenever possible, try to find ways to involve students’ interests in an area they’re struggling to find motivation in, advises Daniels. “The more you can attach whatever it is you have to do to something you actually like doing, the easier it is to stay motivated.
6. Go with the ebbs and flows
In a marathon, giving 100% of your effort looks different at various points — there are certain stretches where you’ll slow down a bit and others where you kick it into high gear, but such adjustments are a strength not a weakness of motivation. That’s also the case during the school year, according to Daniels.
“You’re going to ebb and flow in your motivation. It’s OK to have some days where you’re not super enthused about things. You’ve just got to not let it plow you over.”
When you’re struggling with motivation, sometimes it’s best to take a step back rather than trying to push through at any cost. “Like everything, motivation is a finite resource. The cost of continuing to invest effort in something that is a bad fit can take a toll in other areas. Giving yourself a break and some space is OK.”
Staying motivated throughout the entire school year can be challenging, but with your long-term goals in mind, you’re more likely to succeed. Follow these tips so you can set yourself up for success this year.
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