How to Motivate Your Teenager

Last week I mentioned how critical it is that we engage students by giving them meaningful work. In this post, I’ll explore how parents can connect their teenager’s interests to their schoolwork and daily life. Later this week, I’ll explore this issue from the classroom perspective.

Studies remind us that when parents discuss their teenager’s school work with them, their academic performance improves. And while any given classroom contains a diverse set of interests, only some of which may be immediately apparent, parents know their teen’s interests and are uniquely suited to promote connections between schoolwork and their teen’s interests or daily activities.


#1: Expand their interests

When I was a child, my parents regularly looked for fun family activities: we visited the orchestra’s open house, a fantastic exhibit on Saudi Arabia, the science museum, the art museum, the botanical gardens, and so forth. So even before I started school, I had been exposed to how the arts, history/culture, science were incorporated into the world around me. I also began to view learning as a normal activity rather than something limited to school hours. But by the time I was a teenager, we stopped going to most of these cool events (the one exception was the orchestra’s yearly open house where I futilely tried to make a clarinet squeak). I did have other volunteer activities and hobbies that replaced these events and provided important foundations for my later interests to develop. But, unlike my early childhood, by the time I was a teenager, my activities became focused primarily on a fairly narrow band of interests when I could have continued to experiment with new ideas.

When was the last time you took your teenager: to art walk, to a poetry reading, to a lecture, to a maker faire, or (for older teenagers) to a networking meet-up?

These enrichment activities expose teenagers to new ideas, modes of thinking, and potential career paths. We often think about cross-training as an athletic practice, but when we ‘cross-learn,’ we create an environment in which innovation can occur. Many of the objects that we use in our everyday lives — the iPod, Google, medicines — were invented because someone borrowed ideas from a different discipline.

#2: Ask them to visualize their future.

What does your teenager want to do in a few years? How does she want to spend her time everyday? Regularly checking in with your teenager or asking them to think about where they will be in five years or ten years sounds like a hokey activity, but research shows that the practice of imagining one’s future makes it easier for anyone to recognize the concrete steps they need to move towards that path. For teenagers, this means finishing high school and either attending college or learning marketable skills through internships or on-the-job experience. When your teenager is more aware of what he wants to do in the future, he’ll be more likely to make connections between his coursework and that future. When I taught freshman composition to a group of nursing students, they were the most engaged class I ever had. Why? Because they understood that they needed to learn how to clearly communicate in order to be successful nurses.

Even if your teenager changes her mind about what she wants to be when she ‘grows’ up, the regular practice of connecting her present activities with her future plans means she’ll start a new career path with a workshop of useful tools.

#3: Help them connect the present to that future. 

When you ask your teenager what he or she learned in school each day, you have an excellent opportunity to connect what they’re thinking about in school to things that you’ve experienced as a family — a movie you watched together, the news report you listened to on the way to school, the discussion you had at dinner the night before, and so forth. Often when teenagers are ground down by endless homework, they may not be able to make these associations themselves. Reminding them that learning about Watergate might help us evaluate knotty ethical issues can re-energize their interest in their homework because  it helps them see the relevance of that homework. It also reminds students why we learn: because it helps us make sense of our world, whether that’s understanding big ideas or how to most effectively pay off student loan debt.

Another thing parents can do is read widely about their teenager’s interests. When I taught that writing class to nursing students, I started each class by asking, ‘did you hear about that meningitis scare?’, ‘did you see what the latest medical research said about chocolate?’, and so forth. Generally my students were too busy to follow current health care news, but this is precisely what they need to know to talk to professionals in their field, to keep up with cutting-edge research, and to know how their patients might react to specific treatment plans. When you share a news article with your teenager about something that intrigues them, they know that you believe their interests are valuable. They also learn how their interests intersect with other people and diverse careers.

While parents have a huge influence in their teenager’s academic success, teenagers still spend the bulk of their weeks at school. So how should we be teaching our students? I’ll provide one answer in my next post, but feel free to share your ideas on the Facebook page.

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Chelsea Avirett

About Chelsea Avirett

Chelsea is the founder of Spyglass Tutoring, a Humanities enrichment tutoring service located in Rockland, ME. She has taught English literature to middle school and college students and is also certified (in the state of Georgia) to teach gifted education. She also holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband moved to Midcoast Maine in 2013 and love the excitement and vibrancy of the area’s creative economy.