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Q&A | How do you motivate homeschooled kids?

math dinosaur

Several readers have written in recently to ask about how to keep their kids on task and how to handle kids who are less than enthused about doing their schoolwork.

Since this isn’t a homeschooling blog, I know this is technically off-topic. But hey, it’s Q&A day.   And since several of you wondered, I thought it might be worth devoting a post to it.


First, let me say that I don’t think there’s a silver bullet solution here, and I think some kids are just more distractible than others. For instance, Sonia would tell you that she isn’t a super-focused kid, even though she’s grown up in the same environment as her siblings.

But here are a few things that have helped my kids (Sonia included!) to get their work done each day.

(Well, most days! It does all get done by the end of the year.)

homeschool math outdoors

No screen time/playing with friends until work is done.

From the time my kids were pretty little, this rule has been in place and they know that schoolwork and chores have to be done before they can have their screen time or play with friends.

As long as you’re consistent with enforcing this rule, it’s a really effective way to keep kids on task.   No one wants to be the lone kid still working on school while their siblings are out playing with friends!

And if a kid is prone to getting distracted, it’s pretty simple to remind them that if they want to play, the work has to get finished first.

(We also have the rule that if you sneak screen time before your work is done, you forfeit that day’s screen time plus the next day’s time. So we haven’t had much sneaking to deal with since the kids know it’s not worth it.)

homeschool crossword

The work has to be done by the end of the school year.

We don’t do school for a specific number of days (our county doesn’t require that), but we do make sure that we finish our curriculum each year.

So, Sonia and Zoe know that they can choose to take a day off of math in February, but that means they’ll have to do that lesson in the spring. They aren’t getting rid of work; they’re just pushing it off.

They do still choose to take days off sometimes, but the big picture (Let’s get done before summer hits!), inspires them to keep at it.

I don’t overschedule their days.

It’s really hard to get schoolwork done if you have are barely home.   So, it’s important to give your kids enough time and space to do their work or they’ll still be working math problems at 7pm.

And that’s a pretty sure way to guarantee bad attitudes/slacking.

I don’t expect them to love every part of school.

While some parts of school can be fun (History is pretty enjoyable! And science too. Also time tests, because you get M&Ms if you come in under the timer.), some of it is hard work.

So, if they tell me, “Mooooom, I don’t feel like doing subject X.” or, “I haaaate subject Y.”, I tell them, “Hey, that’s ok.   You don’t have to love it and you don’t have to feel like it. You just have to do it.”

I feel like that’s possibly more helpful than a pep talk (“Oh, honey! Adding trinomials is actually super fun!”) because I’m not sure any kid ever started to love a subject after their parent tried to convince them it was fun.

Also, this approach is more honest because most of us have subjects that we hated and probably will always hate.   And so will our kids.

(Me? Music theory. Blech. Also: geometry proofs.)

There are lots of things in life that are work and that you have to just soldier through.   That, in and of itself, is a huge skill to learn.

I let them take breaks.

If one of my kids is struggling with an assignment or a subject, I will sometimes suggest a walk around the block, a 15-minute fun reading break, a shower, a jump-on-the-trampoline session, or a switch to another subject they like more.

Of course, not every situation in life allows for strategies like this, but learning to do something that calms you down/helps you refocus is an important life skill that’ll be useful through adulthood.


A quick note before I wrap this up: The things I’m mentioning here were a lot more important to establish when my kids were younger.   Joshua and Lisey are 17 and 16 now, so they manage their own schoolwork time and we don’t enforce screen time for them anymore…we’re in the midst of a gradual letting-go process with them, since they’ll be out on their own in not so crazy long.

And since Sonia and Zoe are 11 and 13 now, these habits are pretty well-ingrained and don’t take a whole lot of work on my end.

(Ok, except for the part about, “I don’t feel like doing school!”. That one we are still working on.)


Readers, if you have tried and true tips for keeping kids motivated and on-task, add ’em in the comments and help your fellow readers out!

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Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

I think a bit issue is age-appropriate expectations, which you mention. I do expect my almost-13-year-old to keep his focus on his school work for the bulk of the school day, without needing too many breaks. With him, it's more a matter of reminding him that, even if he doesn't like writing, he still has to do it, giving him some praise and the occasional cup of half-caff coffee, and trying to make sure to reduce the distractions his younger siblings create for him as much as I reasonably can. He usually spends the morning working independently while I work more hands-on with the other kids and help him if he has a question, and while he does need to stay focused, I also feel like it's my responsibility to make sure his younger siblings aren't being unreasonably distracting. (Some distractions happen and you need to deal with them, like hearing the toddler singing in the other room. You can't work if she is climbing onto your lap while banging cymbals, though. That's when I need to step in and find her something to do, away from the workers.)

With the younger kids (5 and 7), a lot of it is me keeping them on task. My 7 year old can complete some work pretty independently, but for some subjects she still needs me there as a motivator. My 5 year old, forget it: if I'm not right there, he's not on task. With my oldest, that drove me crazy, but at this point I accept it as typical 5 year old behavior and deal with the fact that I can't, as much as I'd like, set the little ones up with worksheets and then go do 20 minutes of chores and come back to check their work. I'll come back and they'll be playing secret agent upstairs, having done two problems each (if that). So with younger kids, sometimes you do just need to accept that keeping them on task, at this point, is going to involve you being there to keep them on task, but it will get better as they get older!


Wednesday 3rd of May 2017

I completely agree. I can expect Sonia and Zoe to mostly stay on task by themselves now, but 7 years ago, that was definitely not the case!

Molly F.C.

Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

Great post! What are Joshua's plans for next year? Assuming he'll enroll in college while living at home?


Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

He's got one more year left at the community college after this semester, and then he should have his AA. He plans to transfer to an in-state college after that to get his four-year degree.

So far, he's planning to live at home as long as possible so that he can save money, but we'll see. He may get stir-crazy before then and want to move out, but he really, really wants to start his adult life out without a pile of debt, so he's pretty motivated to stay here.


Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

The art of motivation of kids--home or outside schooled-- is the same. Natural born teachers know how, as you do,Kristen. As a retired public school teacher, I love to read what your practices are. I am always interested in what you do and find it doesn't matter where a child learns; what matters is the teacher's know-how.


Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

I love the homeschooling posts that you do. Here in the UK there are some home-schooled children, but it's very much a minority. Both of my children attend state school (one primary and one high now! how the time has flown - I started my blog when my first child had just started school). Although my kids 'go' to school I'm keen to support and engage them at home myself (personal tutors are common now in the UK outside of school) and read your posts with interest!


Monday 1st of May 2017

Geometry proofs are the best! Sometimes during faculty meetings I'll prove triangle are congruent instead of doodling. I'm a bit disappointed that our public school's geometry is so good because I was kind of looking forward to teaching them to my son this summer but now I don't have to. (Years ago I did teach my sister so she wouldn't have to retake geometry when she moved to private school.). I even bought a copy of my favorite text-- Geometry for enjoyment and challenge. (I got to meet one of the textbook authors too. He was really nice.)

In any case, have you seen the dragon box version of geometry proofs? Even my four year old enjoyed playing with the first few levels. Gamifying proofs.


Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

Ha, well, they're fun for YOU. But not for everyone. ;)

Maybe you can come visit when it's Sonia's turn for geometry in a few years. I'd gladly delegate to you!

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