Guest Post: 8 Keys to Helping Kids Stay Engaged and Work Hard

Of all the guest bloggers I’ve featured here, this one is my favorite. And it’s a good thing, too, because I’m married to him. But marriage to me (and being father to two teenagers) is not all Trevor does. He has nearly 25 years of experience in serving adolescents and their families as a youth pastor, licensed counselor, sports coach, school counselor, and mental strength coach. (Below, you can read more about his work and follow a link to his site, where you can contact him about working with someone in your family.) If you’re a parent or you care about some young people in your life, you’ll benefit from his wisdom and tips in this post.


Danielle is a kindhearted and respectful young woman. Her parents would be proud if they could see how teachers and her peers experience her at school on an interpersonal level. Unfortunately, that does not translate to a great performance in the grade book. Danielle struggles mightily. Her parents have come in for conferences, have connected with her teachers, and have dedicated time and energy to trying to help Danielle achieve better grades. Nothing is working. Danielle is capable of passing her classes, but she seems scattered, confused, disinterested, and unmotivated to pursue any kind of excellence in the classroom. In other words, she lacks intrinsic motivation.

As a middle school counselor, my job is to provide support, insight, encouragement, resources, and strategies for students, to help them experience social, emotional, and academic success while they’re at school. I work in a school with strong leadership and deeply engaged faculty. The school is adequately resourced, and I have found that parents and the surrounding community are engaged in education and advocate well for their educational goals. Our teachers do a fantastic job in getting to know their students and developing and implementing individualized teaching strategies that students find engaging and strategic, leading them to content mastery and academic success. Even within this strong educational framework, we have students who regularly fail academically. I scratch my head over this because I know these students can pass their classes and I know their teachers are giving them everything they need to be successful.

Behaviorists have known for many years that without coercive threats, we can’t make people do anything. Of the many factors that can predict a student’s failure, the lack of intrinsic motivation (the ability to internally motivate yourself to accomplish a desired task) is the main reason for most students. The purpose of this post is not to parse through the specific contributing factors that lead to a lack of intrinsic motivation. Instead, I want to address how you, parents, can empower your children to become more intrinsically motivated.

The earlier and more consistently you can integrate these ideas in your child-rearing, the more likely your children will develop an intrinsically motivated mindset.

1. Expect self-discipline. Do not bribe for tasks that are age-appropriately expected. If your child needs to be bribed to get out of bed in the morning with a trip to Starbucks, your child is not going to get out of bed without a trip to Starbucks. And he or she won’t develop the self-discipline required to do it without bribery. The same can be said of any other age-appropriate task (cleaning room, cleaning self, doing homework, doing chores, and so on).

2. Whenever possible, give your kids autonomy to set their own course. An effective strategy that I’ve seen used splendidly, is to provide several choices when you want to see something get done. (Will you do it now or this afternoon? Which book will you choose for your book report?) When you are able, allow students to be unfettered in determining their learning directives. This grants young people the self-determination they desire without the power struggle.

3. Set the bar high! Talk about school, learning, and personal development as if they are never-ending quests for doing better. Perfect is not possible (it is important to acknowledge that), but taking risks, failing, learning, and “going back at it” are imperative for students to learn to value learning. Make learning and growing as much about the process as about the results.

4. Increase your child’s personal value by making self-advocacy an expectation. Help students experience success and failure because they take healthy risks in trying to get what they need and they want to be successful. For many students, raising a hand in class and pursuing unknown knowledge can be daunting. Students who lack intrinsic motivation are regularly battling self-talk that tells them they can’t understand the content and they can’t succeed in mastering it. Push them to challenge these fears and negative messages and take charge of their own learning.

5. Help your child identify and specifically label what they want. No student wants to be a chronic academic failure. Most young people do not understand how their actions and mindsets set them up to succeed, or to learn from failure. Help students publicly proclaim what they want and how they intend to get it. When they fail, debrief how it happened and how they intend to change their course next time to get what they want.

6. Have your child develop a plan that will result in what he or she wants. Obviously, following through with the plan will be challenging, but with standard setting, realistic goals, and time invested accountability, a student can rise to the occasion.

7. Show what hard work gets you. Students who lack intrinsic motivation don’t see and experience the negative impact their mindset is having on their future. Helping students understand the credentials necessary to get them what they want is important for them to see the path to get where they want to go.

8. Relentlessly articulate the importance of the journey. Students who lack intrinsic motivation often suffer from negative self-talk that poisons their ability to pursue what they want. Make it as much about the process as it is about the result. I understand and acknowledge that results matter, but learning from the process matters more when it comes to developing intrinsic motivation.

In any context, students who work to their potential have elements of intrinsic motivation. As parents, our task is to help our children position themselves to be lifelong learners. All lifelong learners grow into being intrinsically motivated to pursue personal growth. If parents intentionally build up the intrinsic motivation of their children, they will see growing, motivated, and resilient young adults grow before their very eyes.


Trevor Simpson is passionate about seeing students Trevorconfidently walk ahead because they know who they are and where they want to go. As a youth and family therapist, school counselor, and performance coach, he walks with young people to guide them to a place where they can increase objectivity, solve problems, take healthy risks, manage stress and anxiety to their advantage, and clearly see their true best. He lives in the western suburbs of Chicago, where he uses his nearly-7-foot height to reach things on high shelves for his wife and their two teenage girls. He loves to travel with his family, coach youth softball, and cheer for all the sports teams from his hometown, Denver, Colorado.

1 Comment
  1. Thanks for this educative and encouraging post.

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