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Do you have kids who are motivated at the beginning of the year, only to become reluctant learners as the year goes on? If so, I want to show you how to motivate homeschool students all year long.

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How to Motivate Homeschool Students

My experience as a psychologist and homeschooling mother of six leads me to highlight three keys to motivating homeschool students all year: discovering motivators, deprivation, and consistent rewards.

The first key to motivating homeschool tudents is to discover what motivates them.

We know some motivators instinctively, but sometimes it seems like nothing motivates our kids. Here’s how to narrow it down.

  • First, what does your child ask for? Is there a snack, an acitivity, or a person your child wants to spend time with? My kids have always loved Pop-Tarts, screen time, and having neighbor friends over. Instant motivators.
  • What does your child spend time doing? My kids love to read books in a series, jump on the trampoline, and watch YouTube videos.

That gives me another list of motivators. You should have a list too. But you may be doubting whether or not your list of rewards will really motivate your kids to do what you want. And you should doubt if you are not using motivational key number 2.

The second key to motivating homeschool students is to deprive them of the motivator.

I worked with rats in a lab as a psychology student. I was able to easily teach a nonverbal rodent how to play basketball, swing on a trapeze, and pull a light switch on. How did I do it? With food pellets. But that’s not all.

Rats will do nothing for food pellets if they’re full. Absolutely nothing. Most of our kids are effectively fat rats. They have access to loads of snacks they love. They have plenty of toys, games, and diversions to keep them happy. They may even have more money than they know what to do with. So, no wonder they aren’t motivated to work for more.

If we want motivated kids, we need to deprive them of these rewards to a certain extent. Rats in a lab are starved to 75% of their body weight. Don’t worry! We aren’t going to deprive our kids by not giving them enough to eat. That’s abuse! But we can and should deprive them of some of the rewards they enjoy. Let me give you an example.

I used to take my kids to sports events and would buy them a snack they wanted. But then I deprived them of this privilege by telling them they had to pay for these with their own money. Suddenly, money became important. They were motivated to earn more to get the snacks they wanted. In the same way, having a free-for-all screen time policy wouldn’t motivate kids to work for more.

A failure to deprive kids of a potential reward is why parents often struggle to motivate their kids. Deprivation is also introduced when we refuse to give the reward without the desired behavior. If my rat didn’t pull the light switch, he got no food pellet. If I had given the food pellet anyway, my rat wouldn’t have learned.

The third key to motivating homeschool students is to consistently reward them.

When you have a reward and you deprive your child of the reward at least somewhat, you have her ready to be consistently rewarded. When I stopped giving my rat food pellets for pulling a light switch, he stopped pulling it. He really should have been willing to do it for me for nothing, but he was an ungrateful rat. No, he was a normal creature who is motivated by consistent reinforcement.

A big mistake we make in motivating our kids’ behavior is not rewarding the correct behavior immediately. We’re on the phone, in the middle of something, or just tired and we don’t give our child the promised treat. I was bad about this with sleepovers. Sleepovers were a motivator for my kids but not for me. I would put off having a sleepover, even though my child had earned it. I lost the motivating power of that reward as a result.

When you are first training a child’s desired behavior – finishing math, cleaning a room, speaking respectfully, you must deliver the reward quickly and consistently. After your child has learned the behavior to the point that it is a habit, you can delay or even miss a reward and not lose the positive behavior. Your daughter learns to like having a tidy room. Your son realizes it’s easier to get his math done early. Your child trusts you to deliver the reward, even if you’re delayed in doing it.

[Read 6 Reasons Your Child Hates to Write and How to Fix It]

Troubleshooting the Motivation of Homeschool Students

The three keys I just described work with rats and they work with kids too. Let’s troubleshoot a bit though.

Some parents tell me that a reward works for a while and then their kids don’t care about it. If that’s you, your child may be satisfied with the reward. Make sure there’s enough deprivation. If your child has earned 40 hours of game time, there’s no motivation to earn more. But a second reason may be that what your child really likes is variety and surprise. In that case, make the reward variable. Create a reward jar your child can draw from with slips of paper where you’ve written a variety of rewards. You can accomplish the same thing by using an app. I use the Random app on my iPhone.

Next, you will have a challenge if you reward your child without making sure the behavior was performed correctly. Make the time to verify the work has been done or your child will lack motivation.

Some motivational efforts break down in the deprivation phase. My rat wasn’t able to complain about being deprived of food. But kids can complain. Don’t allow whining, complaining, or fits to get you to deliver a reward without the expected behavior. In fact, the complaining is evidence that you’re using the right reward.


Use these three keys of finding what motivates your kids, depriving them of the motivator, and consistently rewarding good behavior and your kids can stay motivated all year. Which of these three keys has been the most challenging for you in motivating your student? Comment below.

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