The Education Blog

14th December, 2021

Guest blog: How to foster happy motivated learners

by Elaine Halligan, London Director of The Parent Practice

‘Intelligent, successful, but miserable’ seems to be the current theme in education, and as parents, it is very easy to associate success with academic achievements.

The modern child growing up in the developed world today is subject to many, many pressures. Pressure to achieve, gain results, qualifications, accomplishments at school, to pass exams and achieve high scores. Interestingly, according to Dr Tessa Livingstone, creator of the ‘Child of our Time’ series, British children are the most tested in the world.

Parents can help their children be happy and motivated learners and to gain fulfilment and contentment from their achievements, however, if we push our children too hard academically, we are in danger of creating a generation of unhappy children. They report feeling pressurised and anxious, with the result that they end up cheating or lying or giving up and becoming risk averse. Too much focus on results and inadvertently we suck the joy out of learning. Anxiety in children is very much on the rise and it limits good brain function.

So what can we do as parents? Are we stuck in a culture that we are powerless to change? Or is there something we can do in the way that we raise our children that will redefine the way our children view success and themselves? Can we present a different model of success? One that is consistent with happiness and contentment? We need to help our children to rise up to, rather than be weighed down by, educational aspirations.

We can encourage our children to do their best and work hard, however, if they define themselves only by their results, their sense of self-worth becomes fragile. Focusing more on children’s efforts, attitude and improvement will still produce great outcomes, with less stress and stronger foundations for the future.

In order for children to be creative and persevering learners, they need to be able to think for themselves and rather than feel defeated by failures, learn how to embrace them as learning opportunities.

Here are some ways parents can help:

• Build healthy self-esteem and develop a growth mindset by descriptively praising effort and good strategies e.g. “You’ve remembered to bring your homework diary home. That shows good organisation”, not “You’re so organised”, which can result in pressure always to be organised.

• When parents pay attention to something, children learn it is important. If we pay attention only to achievements or scores, children learn results-based success is what counts. So when they don’t achieve the results hoped for, are our children not worthwhile?

When your child comes home from a netball/football match, don’t let your first question be “Did you win?”, but “Did you enjoy the game? Did you play your best? Did you listen to the coach? Did her tips about shooting work? Were you able to set up some goals? How did the team play together?”

• Build resilience and emotional intelligence by acknowledging and validating their feelings. It’s not the parent’s job to take away the feelings of upset our children experience. It is our job to help them cope with those feelings. Once the child’s feelings have been heard they are then able to come to solutions, sometimes with help from an adult.

So when your child comes home and says: “I’m hopeless at these sums. Everybody else can do them except me,” don’t say, “Well if you tried a bit harder I’m sure you’d do better’, rather say “It sounds to me as if you’re finding the work hard. It can feel quite overwhelming if you believe you’re the only one not getting it.”

Once your child feels heard and validated, it frees up space in their prefrontal cortex to start to problem solve.

• Encourage risk-taking and thinking for themselves. Let your child find the solutions. Not doing too much for our children is a vital gift we can give them, and doing too much for them is a great disservice. When we encourage children to do things for themselves, we give them the message that we believe they are capable. Competence breeds confidence.

• Be really aware of what values we communicate around success and failure. Model the attitude that problems and struggles help our brains growth and mistakes are normal. If we persistently avoid pointing out errors to our children, the idea of failure grows intolerable, until they cannot bear to make a single mistake. If they’re not used to failing, it can make them risk averse. They won’t want to take part in events, because they don’t want to lose.

If we believe that success and happiness come from academic grades and getting the ‘perfect’ job, we will inadvertently end up micro-managing, nagging and creating anxiety. Instead, by praising and rewarding the journey and validating how our children feel, this will enable them to process and deal more effectively with their emotions and free up creative space. This shift in our parenting approach carries profound implications for our children, and our future relationships with them, and will give our children a better chance of a positive and meaningful life ahead.

Elaine Halligan is the London Director of The Parent Practice, which empowers parents with strategies to create a happier healthier future generation, of confident and contented children.

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