Motivating Learners in Your Homeschool

Some days everyone wants to sit on the couch and watch TV. That’s when we homeschooling moms start to panic. They are supposed to be LEARNING!

In my 16 years of homeschooling, we had plenty of “unproductive” days, and here are a few things I learned:

1. Adjust your expectations.

Concentrate on your child’s attitude toward learning more than the observable act of learning. My mantra through the years has been “maintain the joy of childhood and the joy of learning.”

More than giving information, my job was to nurture that natural love of learning, not to kill it. I had to stop and stand back once in awhile, gagging that teacher in me. If they were engrossed in a book, I refrained from assigning a book report. Instead, we talked about what they were learning, extending and applying what they read, but no book reports unless they asked for it.

Look at their activities objectively. Even if it doesn’t look like they are learning, maybe they are.

I boiled my teaching job down to two essentials: teach them how to read and encourage a love of reading. But they can’t be reading all the time. When you start to panic, just remind yourself that you are on the right track.

2. Build internal motivation.

A child will do what interests him. Ask him what he wants to learn about: the stars? photography? rocks? horses? music? animation? World War II? The world is our classroom, and there is much more to learn than anyone can in a lifetime, so let him or her pick the topic.

Next, go to the library and check out books and videos related to his interests. This shows you value him while it gives him the opportunity to read, research, and develop his interests.  After the library, research the Internet. If he continues to show interest, find field trips, experts and classes to go even deeper.

You will be surprised how much science, social studies, English, and math will be absorbed in letting your child follow his interests. When that interest dies, let him pick another. And of course, more than one interest can be going at once.

Even if his interests are a little “out of the box,” that’s OK. The point is to nurture, not discourage, his love of learning.

3. Avoid yelling, threatening, or punishing.

Negative motivation just doesn’t work in the long run. Since we were a homeschooling family, I was mom and teacher all rolled into one. If I lost the hearts of my children, I would lose them on both fronts.

Now my kids are young adults, ages 21, 18, and 16. We respect each other because I always respected them. They listen to me because I listened to them. And they don’t harbor resentment or anger from the way they were treated as children.

4. Use bribes sparingly.

I used tradition motivators (check charts, candy, money, trips) when the internal motivation was just not there. This would include certain workbooks and chores.

If done sparingly, bribes are useful, and can be fun.

That’s it! Four principles for motivating your learners.

What would you add? How do you motivate your young learners?

About Jena Borah

Jena Borah homeschooled her three children all the way to college. She blogs about her homeschooling years and her interest-led philosophy at Yarns of the Heart.


  1. This perfectly fits in my homeschooling philosophy (which I am still building). Encouraging rather than forcing it is honestly the best way to produce intelligent, hard-working children. My husband was home-schooled until 6th grade, and it was all interest-guided learning (with some reading and mathematics to get basics). Thank you for this post. I love all the encouragement I can get!

  2. Very well said.

    I try to teach the kids that as long as they choose to do what needs to be done on their own (self-discipline), then they don’t require me “making” them do it (discipline). But they have to understand, it is always their choice to make. When discipline is necessary, it was not I who chose it. The goal is always to move them more toward self governance in their responsibilities.
    I Live in an Antbed’s latest post: Tongue Test

  3. Great points, thanks for sharing from your experienced perspective. I’ll put more emphasis in dealing with my kids from the perspective of these 4 principles.

    It’s hard to learn when you are being pushed to do it, I know it is for me and it has to be that way for the kids.
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  4. I always love your articles, Jena, and your philosophy. The only thing I would add is that to the extent my husband and I are engaging life and curious about new things and wanting to learn, is to the extent it seems to catalyze the same in our kids. “You have to live it to give it” has become very real to me as a teacher and mama. When we are passionate and enthusiastic it seems to be catching.
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  5. This is my philosophy exactly. There is a lot to be said for allowing the child to be responsible for their education, because they really are in charge. We can force memorization and writing of papers and worksheets. However, you can not mandate learning or education. That is the job of the heart.
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  6. #4 – lol, just this morning I made an attendance chart to record which of my kids actually make it to our school ‘roll call’ dressed and teeth brushed! 3 of my 4 students will be getting a treat today!
    these are great ideas and match exactly how I try to run things over here.
    thanks for the discussion.
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  7. Monique Woodward says:

    Great post Jena. I have enjoyed reading the comments as well. One thing I’ve learned about my daughter this year is that she likes to have a more structured set-up and a plan. I keep reminding her that we can take a year…or two, to go through the World History she has chosen to study…but since it is literature driven….lots of reading and lighter on the writing, she seems to want to “go for it” b/c she loves reading! In many ways, I have tried to keep it really unstructured, but she shared with me just recently that she likes the ‘structure’ and lesson-plan type thing. That is her ‘interest’ coming through and I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. She is really liking the material…that she helped pick out for this year…it is a fit. My other daughter, who does not homeschool, has noticed her sister is doing things more structured and offered her sisterly ‘opinion’. “I don’t like how you are doing things more structured…I liked it better how you did it before. If I were homeschooling that is how I would do it” I just had to smile…as she has not yet decided to homeschool and is ‘over-inundated”sp? with structure. Ellie, my homeschooled daughter, was able to share with her that she likes it that way…and with a smile continued working through a vocab lesson she had out.

  8. I always look forward to your posts! This is great advice. especially the counter-productiveness of threatening and yelling – you lose out on both fronts. That’s so true. And the importance of loving reading – it just unlocks the world of learning for them. We have to be so careful not to kill it and keep that alive.
    Leslie’s latest post: this moment- Im learning to

  9. Hi Jena,
    Great reminder that learning happens ” all the time”… We have always been an ART FIRST andchild led type of homeschool family and now that our two homeschooled children are 14 and 12 they actually ” want ” to spend more of their time on adademics so we use Oak Meadwow… they love the ” creative apects ” of it and we all love the flexibility of the curriculum in general. We are in our tenth year and still going strong… knock on the dining room table! Keep up the great articles!

    Debbie’s latest post: Homeschool Blog Carnival

  10. I’d also add the biggest two for us…

    1. Keep it fun. There’s almost always a fun way to learn any subject or topic.
    2. Give children equal control of their education.

    Motivating is honestly just not an issue for us, but we are pretty nontraditional. Last night my husband sat on the bed with my 12 y/o and helped her figure out how many pounds, square feet, etc. of chocolate, teenagers and other oddities could fill a swimming pool. It was very complicated math and she couldn’t wait to do more. 🙂
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  11. Jena,

    This is so good. Thank you for sharing this and I think you’re thoughts are so right on. I will be referencing this post at FIMBY.

  12. It’s important to go back and remember WHY we are homeschooling- the time to learn about what interest the child is usually around the top of the list

  13. Hey Jena,
    I really appreciated this blog (as well as the links to supplemental articles by you)! I have a 5-yr-old and a 7-yr old and am trying to approach homeschool in a very similar manner. It’s encouraging to read from like-minded parents, as I often feel pressure from others to use a more “traditional” approach. I feel that it’s fairly easy to interest/motivate my kids in art, music, literature, science, history, mathematics, life skills, etc. One area where I struggle is teaching hand-writing. Any ideas?
    Thanks, Kathy

    • We simply teach handwriting by writing! I print off appropriately sized three-lined paper from They may copy a memory verse, write an interesting fact they learned, write a letter to Grandma, or create a short story. My boys are 6 & 8; I often print the blank top page so they can illustrate the top. My youngest will dictate his sentence to me, then copy what I wrote. My oldest writes his own, then I help him proofread and he recopies it.

  14. All great points!! For us, the best motivation is hands-on activities. My son is in high school now, but he’s definitely learns by doing (and 99.99% of high school materials are sit and read, sit and read). He loves doing experiments, making dioramas, sketching animals in his nature journal, etc. so we make sure that there are plenty of hands on activities each day.
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  16. Oh, I’m glad I am not the only mother who experiences the panic as soon as I spot the kids watching the television. I’m always on the lookout for material to share with them – living books, biographies, recipes, simple science experiments, videos. The list is endless. One of my key philosophies is Be Flexible. Sometimes when I’m the most laid back and open to child-led learning, we embark on a wonderful adventure together! Last week it started with a book on Hershey! Thank you for the post. I appreciate the encouragement and advice.

  17. I really like this post because I have found it is the only way to work with my daughter who does not find regular school interesting and as a result fell behind when she last attended. I particularly like the idea of asking a child what they want to learn today. My daughter asks a lot of questions which facilitates learning, but asking the question of what they want to learn today would help with motivation. I will definitely try it!

  18. I kind of run along this vein as well. But my problem comes when my son balks at any form of written work. I mean, he’s got to write SOMETHING, right? It is a major battle, and I feel as though learning is lost in the struggle. Any thoughts?

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