How to Motivate Students… With Love

As we enter Thanksgiving week, I’ve got several things on my mind…

In the last ten days, I attended two different conferences where dozens of parents and teachers talked about how challenging it is to motivate their children and students.

Meanwhile, at home, my family is grieving the loss of my husband’s grandmother. We have visited Great-Grandma every Sunday morning for several years. Her passing is a blessing; she was 94, very weak, and ready to go. But, we will miss her and our Sunday morning visits!

how to motivate students

Great-Grandma inspired the best from my children. She was a wonderful example of how love can bring out of the best in anyone!

As I compiled pictures and notes for the eulogy I’ll be giving tomorrow, I’m realizing just how much this holiday, Great-Grandma, and the concerns about motivation have in common.

I have two very active children. Mark is eight and has officially been diagnosed with ADHD. Madison is three and will be. They are lovely souls, but they never stop moving! They thrive on excitement and do not have a natural tendency towards patience (to put it kindly). Yet, they somehow mustered the patience for our weekly visits with Great-Grandma where the pace was very slow and excitement was quite limited (also putting it kindly).

They somehow not only tolerated these visits, they grew to thrive on them! They eagerly greeted Great-Grandma with hugs. They waited through long conversations. They patiently shared things with her.

One day, Mark showed her an app on our iPad where a Transformer® dances in tune with any type of music. After Great-Grandma watched the Transformer® break-dance to rock music, Mark changed the station to Great-Grandma’s music. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald, the dancing became a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w swaying motion. Mark later complained to us, “That was SO boring!” But, he never let Great-Grandma know he was bored.

Madison would miraculously stand still for several minutes at a time to let Great-Grandma play with her hair. To know my daughter is to know that standing still is *not* her thing, not even to let anyone else play with her hair! But, she somehow managed to do it for Great-Grandma. It got to the point that Madison would run up and throw her head down next to Great-Grandma, assuming the position to let Great-Grandma play with her hair. It was very funny, but also very sweet.

It was like Madison’s own version of “The Giving Tree.” Somehow, she knew that she could offer something significant to Great-Grandma by offering her hair. It was a lovely reflection of Madison’s kind soul, which is often overshadowed by her staunch stubbornness and hyperactivity.

The powerful exchange between Great-Grandma and the kids has been one of the greatest blessings for our family; she’s taught them kindness and patience and they’ve brought her energy and light!

So, all of these things are swirling through my head: the parents and teachers flustered over how to motivate their children and students, my personal reflections as we prepare to say “good bye” to Great-Grandma, and the season of Thanksgiving being upon us. I’m really struck by the magic that transformed my “wild and crazy” children into patient, loving, and doting great-grandchildren. I’m so grateful to see these wonderful characteristics emerge from them, but I’m intrigued…

What Is the Magic?

The best I can figure, that magic was love. Pure and simple love. Every time my kids entered the room, Great-Grandma would light up! She always had kind words for them. She was encouraging of anything in which they were interested and anything they wanted to do. She would always be excited to see Madison’s newest dress or hear about Mark’s latest soccer game.

She was always grateful that we took the time to visit. She shared that gratitude with my husband and me, but she also made it a point to tell the kids directly. Just a couple of months ago, she was so weak, we couldn’t hear a word she was trying to say. It was heart-breaking that we couldn’t understand what she wanted to communicate. However, as we said good-bye, she grabbed Mark’s hand, looked him in the eye, and summoned the energy to say one sentence very loud and clear, “Great-Grandma loves it when you visit!”

Lessons From Great-Grandma

As parents and teachers, we can’t always focus on the positive. We are responsible for establishing expectations and holding our children and students accountable to meeting them. We have to push, correct, and discipline.

However, that pushing, correcting, and disciplining often comes at the expense of expressing love. WE know that our actions are inspired by love. But, children and students usually aren’t able to appreciate our source of inspiration. The fact that my overactive children could develop patience for “boring” visits to Great-Grandma is proof that a few hugs, words of encouragement, and expressions of gratitude are extraordinarily motivating!

I’ve been working with students and families for nearly twenty years. Ironically, I’ve always found that the best way to motivate them is to take the pressure off of school. Celebrate their talents and strengths. Be thankful for the things they do well instead of dwelling only on the things they don’t do. When their performance in school is approached from the perspective of their strengths –both inside and outside of the classroom- their motivation skyrockets!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

-Susan Kruger


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