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North Dakota State University Parenting Education Network hosted the second webinar in their five-part series Parenting in a Pandemic. The webinars are led by Erin Walsh, co-founder of the Spark & Stitch Institute based out of Minneapolis, Minn. The events are streamed via Zoom, and this one focused on the ccience of motivation.

It is normal to have a lot of motivation when something challenging first happens. We may have met the challenges of the pandemic head on last spring, but now that we are a year into the pandemic - many of us would rather stay in our pajamas. What is the dominating vibe in your home right now? Are you running forward, or are you in your pajamas? You are not alone if your motivation is waning.

When our kids have low motivation, there are a few easy tools we tend to reach for which may not be the most productive or empathetic. The first is ordering. We demand, command, or order them to get going, get motivated. We try to “will” them to get moving. Second, we may try lecturing. We share with them all the reasons why they should be motivated. We may pat ourselves on the back thinking this is really helpful motivation. Third, we resort to straight bribery. Do this, and I’ll get you that.

All three of these strategies are easy to grab at and very tempting but likely don’t work very well because of the way that motivation circuits work. Motivation relies on emotional safety and a willingness to want to move towards the world. We can look to the science of motivation to figure out how to best help our kids engage and be more motivated.

Motivation networks develop over time, a lot of it in the first 5-6 years of life, through interactions with the world and with others. The two main ones are approach motivation and avoidance motivation. The one used most often is the approach motivation system where you want to engage the world, and it is driven by two different experience-reward circuits. One circuit is the “liking circuit.” We do something enjoyable, and we get a little bit of dopamine. This is powerful, but more powerful is the “wanting circuit,” also called seeking brain, which remembers that experience and then motivates us to want to seek it out again. What really sets the seeking brain up for success is a safe routine (I’ve been here before, and I like it) or novelty (I wonder what’s going to happen, and I want to find out). The more positive experiences our kids have had in the world, the more they want to move toward (approach) those experiences.

Avoidance motivation is also common, but we don’t think of it as motivation. When faced with stress, uncertainty, or a feeling of being unsafe, there is a strong motivation to deal with it by retreating from, avoiding, running away from, or ignoring the world. When we want to stay in our pajamas, that’s avoidance motivation.

Stress is a mixed bag. Too little stress is boring and erases all the novelty. Too much stress is hard and cues avoidance motivation. In the COVID environment, we have more stress, less routine, and fewer - or a loss of - dopamine-generating activities. We need to build empathy for our kids and see just how challenging it can be for them. Understanding the science of motivation, what are the tools in our toolkit?

Our tools are 1) recharge the brain, 2) structure and rewards, and 3) choices and shared power.

Recharging the Brain - We want to “prime the brain” for healthy doses of dopamine rewards by providing ways for our kids to recharge and fill their buckets where we can. Some examples of the ways kids – and all people – recharge are: physical (sleep, exercise, nutrition), purpose and helping (in the family, school, and community), connection (to family, friends, and school) and happy distractions (having fun, joy, and playing). Watch your kids in the ways they fill their buckets, and don’t take these away as punishments. Probably the most important when it comes to motivation is connection. Kids may connect with you, friends, teachers, coaches, etc. Find your empathy and tell them, “This is hard, isn’t it?” or “We will figure this out together.” When kids feel that they’re part of a team, that their parents are on their side, they will be better able to handle their stress response.

When kids’ motivation is waning, it is easy to under-parent by backing too far off, over-parent by taking over, or swing back and forth between the two. It may be helpful to figure out your own default mode (over or under parenting) when you are under stress.

Structure and Rewards - Provide structure through routines. Having a routine provides a cue to move to the next task. “After school we do this, then we do this.” Make a routine that signals moving from doing one thing to doing another. When it comes to getting motivated, help your kids identify what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, and when they feel the best. Do they like to do the hard stuff first, or do a few easy things and get them off the list and gain some confidence? Don’t impose what works for you on your kid. Help them break big jobs down into attainable pieces. What is one step that will deal a bit of reward? How can we break this into steps 1, 2, 3, and 4? Unpack it, and figure out which part is the most unmotivating, where avoidance motivation is strongest, and you can start to see how to help. When they have little wins, celebrate. Use the When/Then technique. “When homework is done, then we have free time.” Be careful not to confuse this with bribery. The reward should be something you already do as part of your routine that your kids enjoy, not bribing them with something you will buy for them.

Choices and Shared Power - Anything we can do to give our kids choice and a bit of appropriate freedom is helpful. “What do you want to do first?” “What is your plan for getting this and this done?” Allow them to make choices about their activities and routines, their space and schedule, ways of connecting, and their path towards a goal. If we get stuck in a battle over getting schoolwork done, we can take a break and come back to it. We can say, “Let’s not care about math right now. Let’s care about [soccer, one game, etc.] for a bit instead and then come back to math.”

Finally, we want to have a growth mindset. The goal is to do the best we can to stay healthy, connected, and continue learning during this time. Using these tools helps your kids learn their own path for getting unstuck in the future.

Erin Walsh is a parent, speaker, educator, and writer. She co-founded Spark & Stitch Institute with her father, Dr. David Walsh, and mother Monica Walsh. Their blogs, online classes, free resources, and more can be found at Registration for this series can be found on the NDSU Parent Education Network website at under Programs and Events. Once registered, you will get emails for upcoming webinars.


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