9 tips for motivating primary-aged children to do their home learning during lockdown – from a teacher – Jon Aspinox Writes

9 tips for motivating primary-aged children to do their home learning during lockdown – from a teacher

It’s a weird time for everyone at the moment. Just as you are likely missing family, friends, work colleagues and the routine of daily life, so too are your kids. And just as you might be finding it harder to focus on work when the telly or the garden is just a walk away, and colleagues are distant, your kids are likely finding schoolwork harder when YouTube and Fortnite are a click away and their teachers are remote.

It’s no surprise, then, that for many parents the task of getting school work done at home is a struggle. So, if you are facing daily battles and are hating it, if you are exhausted and don’t know the right tact to take (bribery, let them off, punishments??), I offer some tips based on what teachers might do when dealing with reluctant learners in the classroom. I hope you are able to find something here that helps!

The key is in your relationship with them

Kids do what they are told by teachers, even if they don’t want to, for a few reasons:

  • they know it’s important to follow the rules
  • they want to be rewarded
  • they don’t want to be punished
  • they want to make their teacher happy with them

This last one is far and away the most powerful. In school, one of the tactics teachers use to motivate children to follow our instructions is to use our relationship with them. We do this through giving heavy doses of praise, enthusiasm and individual attention. Kids crave and thrive off individual attention and praise from adults. Adults are cool. They know things, they can do things like drive a car, no-one tells them what to do, they have jobs and earn money! They are mysterious and mystifying. They are basically rock stars. This is why it’s so fascinating to know things about your teacher like their first name or that they have a dog. And just like you if you were in a room with Ed Sheeran, when kids are at school with adults – they’re desperate to get noticed and impress.

As a parent, though, you are your child’s favourite. You’re who makes them feel safe. Who they can be themselves the most with. You are also and have always been, their primary educator. You teach your children things that you probably don’t realise, in ways you probably don’t notice. And for all these reasons and millions more – they adore you. Even if it doesn’t feel like it after the fourth row in a day.

The good news is that because you are so much more important to your kids than we are, the strategies we use in the classroom may be even more effective at home. So with that in mind, here are a few tactics I use in the classroom, adapted for you at home:

  1. Every day is a fresh day. No matter what happened the day before, teachers always aim to help pupils feel like we’re happy to see them and that today is a new chance to excel. It massively helps to improve behaviour, and builds trust and respect. I’d also recommend trying to make up and re-establishing your loving bond at the end of every day, if you’ve been at each others’ throats!
  2. Be wildly happy whenever they do some learning and put some good effort in, whether it’s with you or independently. I mean wildly happy. Cringe-level happy, even with older primary aged kids. They may protest, but secretly they love it. Jump up and down, smile very widely, give them a big hug and a kiss (obviously not something I do in the classroom!). After a few days, when you’re starting to see them being more keen to do their work, gradually scale the excitement level back a bit. But still bring out the big guns for an amazing effort. They’ll gradually start doing more to keep your approval coming.
  3. Praise effort, not achievement. If kids think they only get praise for ‘being clever’ or lots of ticks, it can be very frightening when they’re struggling. They worry they’re going to let you down.
  4. Show them off occasionally. When a reluctant learner has done some good work at school, a teacher will often send them to the head to show it off. You could get them to show a grandparent over video call or share it with the school Facebook page. It lets them know you’re really proud of them. If you know your children aren’t comfortable with public praise, just sticking their work on the fridge or adding it to a folder of amazing work (that you’re going to keep forever!) may be better.
  5. NEVER let work go unacknowledged. Even just a well done and a kiss is good (but make sure you do look at the work otherwise they’re empty words, and kids definitely will notice!). A lot of my time in the classroom is spent acknowledging the work my kids are doing; to their minds, if they don’t get any praise and acknowledgement, why should they do it?
  6. If they’re reluctant to do something, remind them of when they did something similar before and how amazing you thought it was. For instance: “I know sometimes you find maths a bit tricky but do you remember last week when you found it a bit tricky but you persevered and we figured it out together? I was so proud of you. Wasn’t it a great feeling when we cracked it? I wish we could do that again today”
  7. Don’t be tempted to go for the sympathy route. I know “you don’t want to do it but you have to I’m afraid because it’s important” feels like you’re empathising. But this just isn’t motivating, and unconsciously tells them that it’s OK not to enjoy learning. You being enthusiastic about their learning (even if it’s faked) is so much more motivating.
  8. Value your children as individuals. If you have three children and you’re spending half an hour with each, maybe have three different signs you stick on the door when it’s their time, like ‘Lisa’s lovely learning time’ or ‘Mummy is busy having learning fun with Sophie – do not disturb!’. With a little one, maybe both of you wear special silly hats while you’re learning together. With older ones, maybe let them use your work laptop because they’re responsible and have earned your trust. The important point is to make each child feel like a valued individual and the that time you get to spend one on one with them is precious.
  9. Just let them off occasionally. Some days, if they’ve slept badly or are feeling a bit poorly, just let them off for the day. It won’t do them any harm but it will show them that you really care about them and how they’re feeling.

If they refuse to do their work completely

If those tips don’t turn the tables and you are still having constant arguments with your children, just take a step back. Remember that although we want your children to keep up with their learning as much as possible, teachers DEFINITELY don’t want that to come at the expense of your happiness as a family.

I would have an honest conversation with your child, explaining to them how sad it’s making you that you are fighting all the time. Tell them you love them and you’re not going to fight any more. Tell them that you’ve decided to stop trying to make them do their work if they don’t want to do it. Make friends, have a cuddle and do something nice together.

Then either you can carry on with them doing no more home learning than they want to (which is absolutely fine, family harmony is everyone’s top priority) or you can try to sneak some more learning back in using one of these approaches:

Approach One – make them earn your love

Suggest one morning that you do some learning together, like reading. When they refuse, don’t nag, don’t shout, don’t push it, just be surprised in a disappointed way. Look really sad and say something like –

“Oh, it’s a shame you’re not going to do it, I was really hoping to have some time with you/seeing what you would do/hearing your brilliant reading.”

Then just gently make them feel your disappointment by ignoring them. If they talk to you, don’t look at them, don’t stop what you’re doing (pretend you’re busy with something else if you have to) and give one word answers. Don’t ask them what they want for lunch, just give them something. Just don’t be their usual lovely parent for a bit. Say no if they ask for favours. If they ask why not or what’s wrong, just explain that you’re sad because the two of you didn’t do the learning you suggested and you were looking forward to it.

Then later on, when you’ve not really engaged with them for a few hours, ask them again. “Can we do that reading together now?” Look really excited by the prospect and expectant of their response as if your whole happiness depends on it. If they refuse again, don’t argue, just continue the disappointed act.

It may take a few rounds but they will get the idea that the only positive attention they’re going to get from you is by agreeing to read with you. Then when they finally agree, act as if they’ve just told you you’ve won the lottery.

Leap up with a huge smile, give them a hug and say “Yay! I’m so happy, let’s go choose a really good book. Where shall we sit to read? Shall we get a yummy treat to eat while we read?”

Then keep your actual session short and sweet. Maybe only 5 minutes. But pretend it was the best thing ever! Make them see how wonderful it was for you. It won’t have been long enough to make it that painful for them so they will see it was SO worth it for the love you’re now giving them. Then afterwards, go back to being the lovely parent you usually are.

Over the next few days, very gradually and without actually telling them you’re doing it, expect slightly more from them for the same level of wild joy from you. Maybe expect them to do some work independently, or to read for a bit longer, or for them to do some work in a subject they don’t like. Over a week if you can increase what they’re doing from 5 mins a day to 30 mins you’re doing incredibly well.

I’d also really limit the amount you correct them while they’re working, at least for a couple of weeks. Don’t worry if they get something wrong. It’s not about getting things right at the moment, it’s about doing it at all and associating learning with having a good time. They may have switched off in the first place because they were worried about getting things wrong. You can always let the teacher know what they’ve struggled with when the schools reopen – they’ll be incredibly grateful for the insight, and be able to work on it with them.

Approach Two – bribery 

Approach one is basically bribery, using your affection as currency. If that feels a bit too manipulative for you or it’s not working for your child, maybe you should choose a different form of currency. This alternative can be really good for children who like a bit of structure to things or have a highly developed sense of fairness.

Agree together what the reward will be for each piece of learning they do. Make the reward outweigh the task so it feels like they’re getting a really sweet deal – for example, 30 mins of Fortnite time for 10 mins of work. Keep it really simple. Then design some clear and easy way to record this like marbles in a jar or a sticker chart, so they can see their own progress towards earning each reward. You might gradually want to try to increase the amount they are expected to do for the same reward – perhaps after a week it becomes 15 mins of work for 30 mins of Fortnite – but if you think that would throw everything off don’t bother.

The downside to this approach is that you are basically accepting that the learning is boring and that they’re right to only do it for a reward. But if nothing else works, you don’t have anything to lose! I recommend still going heavy on the praise and love as it’ll be an additional motivator for them.

Approach Three – sneak in some learning without them noticing

The work your child has been set may be really dry and you don’t blame them (secretly of course!) for not wanting to do it. If that’s the case, a bit of creativity may help you dress up some learning activities as fun games. There are loads of sources of educational and fun activities online. I’d introduce them to your child as ‘look what I’ve found!’, do it together at first and pretend like it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen. Here are some places to look:




https://www.twinkl.co.uk/home-learning-hub https://www.themathsfactor.com/

Lastly: follow your instincts

One of the things I remember most from our NCT classes that I attended before having my daughter is the emphasis on following your instincts. If the guidelines and advice we were being given weren’t working for our babies, then we shouldn’t stress about it – and we shouldn’t continue trying to force our babies into a routine that wasn’t working for them. Obviously your children are a way past babyhood now, but I think its a useful thing to bear in mind during this time.

Of course, I hope something I’ve said may have sparked an idea to help you if you’re struggling. But if none of this fits with who and your child are, if your instincts say this isn’t for you, then go right ahead and do what feels right for you – even if that means doing next to no work at all. After all, keeping children happy and calm in these tricky times is more important than getting them to do their schoolwork.

For more advice on how to help kids with their home schooling, see my blog 7 tips for home schooling primary school children during lockdown.

I’ve also written in-depth guides to helping children with their reading and their writing, and am working on more topic guides as we speak. I hope you find them useful!

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