Can’t or Won’t? 5 Causes of Low Motivation for Kids

Almost all parents have witnessed their child or teen struggling to find the motivation to complete a chore, such as cleaning their room. But what about when there’s a lack of effort related to academics, such as with homework, studying, or even attending school?

If you’re noticing that your student seems to me lacking in inspiration, ambition, or even energy to complete necessary schoolwork, consider the following five causes of low motivation. To be sure, this isn’t an exhaustive list. But if you’ve ruled out vision and hearing problems, physical illnesses, bullying, and other potential causes, one (or more!) of these causes might be contributing to low motivation. 

#1: Physical or mental exhaustion.

It’s not uncommon for today’s children and teens to be lacking adequate sleep. Many school-aged students stay up too late to get the recommended hours of rest, and others are juggling a jam-packed schedule of school, sports practices and games, and other time-consuming extracurricular activities, such as band, music lessons, and even part-time jobs. 

Take the time to evaluate your child’s schedule and check in with them regarding their physical and mental health. If their grades are suffering, it may be time to reassess what’s truly important to determine if something can be cut (or at least reduced) from their daily routine.

#2: Depression or anxiety.

Since 2020, millions of kids and teens have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Although parents are often the first to notice the symptoms, they’re not always blatantly apparent. You may assume that because your child or teen has friends, stays active, and maintains decent grades that they aren’t struggling with their mental health. But it could be affecting their motivation, requiring even more effort just to keep their head above water. 

Start with a compassionate and honest conversation and spend more time talking than listening. Don’t rule out the option for therapy, which can (literally) be a lifesaver for some children and teens who are suffering in silence.

#3: Lack of confidence.

No one is good at everything, but for students who lack the maturity and confidence to ask for help when they don’t understand a subject, it can feel hopeless to keep trying. They may also be embarrassed that they’re falling behind, keeping their “secret” under wraps until it’s too late. 

You may notice them withdrawing a bit more, avoiding your questions about school, or answering in one-word answers (e.g., “fine”) to prevent what they fear may be a lecture, argument, or feelings of disappointment from a parent. Even getting a C in a class can be particularly difficult for perfectionists who believe they have to do everything right.

#4: Pointlessness.

Sometimes, students just don’t find school—or particular subjects—interesting or relevant. You may hear them utter, “Why do I need to learn this anyway? I’m not gonna need algebra as an adult!” Although it’s often true that kids and children who struggle academically are the first to point out when they’re learning something that they don’t feel will be useful to them later, sometimes it’s legitimate push-back on something that feels irrelevant and like a waste of time. 

Assure your student that not all lessons will translate exactly into something they’ll face as an adult, but that the takeaways may go deeper. 

Beyond just facts and formulas, K-12 instruction teaches valuable skills like problem-solving, cooperation, planning, organizing, time management, and sharing, among others.

#5: Learning struggles.

If your child or teen is struggling academically in multiple subjects, frustration, humiliation, and hopelessness may be contributing to their lack of motivation. Beyond just noticing poor grades on their report cards, you may hear them say things like, “I’m just not smart enough” or “I’m really trying but I just can’t keep up.” 

Although hearing your student put themselves down might simply crush your heart as a parent, imagine what it’s doing to your child or teen. But there is some good news: a learning struggle isn’t an indication that your student isn’t smart. 

In fact, more than 80% of learning problems are due to a cognitive weakness and these brain skills can be targeted and trained at ANY age to make learning easier and faster. Start with a brain skills assessment. It only takes about an hour and the results will help you determine not only if a learning struggle is at the root of your student’s low motivation, but also which brain skills are strong and which could use some intensive training to ensure your child or teen is living up to their full learning potential.

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