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September 2017 Subscribe to the Struggling Learner newsletter >>

Motivating the Reluctant Learner

Picture of Krisa Winn Krisa Winn

By Krisa Winn
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

Do I have your attention?

You’ve got the homeschool room prepared. You’ve purchased curriculum. The school supplies are ready. But do you have the most important component of a successful school year—a motivated learner?

If your answer is no, then please read on. This month, we are going to explore the idea of curiosity and how it can be used to awaken the reluctant learner.


A few years ago, my oldest child declared, “No one in the whole United States of America hates school more than I do!”


I knew it wasn’t true, but those words—combined with the crying, complaining, and inactivity that followed—burdened my heart. I wanted my child to love learning. I wanted her to be excited about trying something new. She was so smart and had so much potential!

What could I do to motivate her?

About this same time, I ran across a study published in the October 2014 issue of the journal Neuron that described the impact of curiosity in regard to learning and memory. This study suggested that the brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better learn and retain information.

With a background in early childhood education, I understood that children are naturally curious. I enjoyed having a front-row seat as my own children discovered their world with awe and wonder.

But it was my curiosity that was piqued as I read the article.

Charan Ranganath, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, and one of the researchers behind the study, explained that “there’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding. This circuit lights up when we get money, or candy.” With the use of neuroimaging, Ranganath and his team were able to see how the brain’s reward and memory pathways also light up when we’re curious.

I began to think, “Was I using my child’s natural bent to ponder, question, and wonder to its fullest potential, or was I squelching it?” The more I read, the more I realized that many times throughout our school day, I was doing the latter.

Questions, Questions

My daughter has inundated my husband and me with questions since her earliest days of language. As she peppered me with queries such as, “Why did God allow mosquitoes on the ark?” or “Why do the clouds get dark before it rains?” I thought to myself, “This child is amazing! She must be a genius!”

But as she entered her school-age years, she would ask similar questions during math or just before a reading lesson. I thought, “You are trying to change the subject. Why aren’t you co-operating with me?” I did my very best to shut the questioning down.

After reading about Ranganath’s study, I realized that those questions indicated that she was expressing curiosity. So I decided to conduct my own “experiment.”

I remember the day clearly. I had just announced that it was time to start our reading lesson. My child reluctantly joined me at the couch, shoulders slumped, face forlorn. After I stated our objective for the lesson, she said, “Mommy, how far is Earth from the sun?”

Instead of seeing this random question as an interruption, I treated it as an episode of curiosity. I told her we would take five minutes and “Google that,” then we would get started with our reading lesson.

I was amazed at the results. Taking those few minutes to learn something that captured her attention seemed to put her in a better state of mind. She was ready, engaged, and productive once we got back on track with my plans for the day.

Bringing Curiosity to Your Homeschool

In their book The Whole Hearted Child, Clay and Sally Clarkson have a chapter that discusses the idea of “fanning the sparks.” The sparks are those moments when a child gets excited about something we’ve presented or, like my daughter, begins to wonder about something that is totally off subject.

The Clarksons describe lesson plans as a “‘fireplace’ for sparks to ignite, be satisfied, and naturally diminish.” They say we should expect sparks, and therefore we should make certain that our plans include room “for reflecting, discussing, pondering, being amazed, for trying new things, cultivating an appreciation for the arts, for expression thru drama, art, music, or writing.”

Here are some practical applications for this idea of creating room for curiosity in your homeschool plans. Although I’m not sure how I ever taught children before Google, there are other ways to tap into episodes of curiosity. Some classroom teachers are incorporating ”wonder walls” where students can post the things they want to learn and discover more fully. A wonder wall might be something as simple as a corkboard with paper and pushpins nearby, to allow your child to quickly and easily post things that catches her attention.

Older students can keep a journal where they record things they wonder about. I’m reminded of the E.B. White story, “The Trumpet of the Swan,” where the main character always ended his day by writing in his journal a question that puzzled him. He would drift off to sleep pondering the question.

At times, I have kept a notebook of some of the topics that my girls wonder about. When we visit the library, I grab the journal so that we can check out books on the various subjects.

Along these same lines, author and psychologist Susan Engel writes in her book, Hungry Minds: The Origins of Curiosity, that it’s good to set aside time in each day for reading and downtime so that students have an opportunity to satisfy their curiosities. When I was a classroom teacher, we used to have D.E.A.R. time. It stood for “Drop Everything and Read.” Similarly, My Father’s World curriculum (we’re using their program this year) has a scheduled time for ”book basket” each day. Again, carving out time in your schedule for free reading is another way to nurture curiosity in your children.

Ann Murphy Paul wrote an article several years ago entitled How to Stimulate Curiosity. In it, she encourages teachers to utilize questioning to create interest or to spark curiosity. You can ask questions such as, “What do you wonder about …?” or “What do you think about …?” Making this type of questioning an integral part of your conversation with your child helps to create an environment of curiosity and wonder in your homeschool.

Experts also encourage teachers to model curiosity for their students. Allow your children to see you searching out a subject, learning a new skill, or trying something you’ve never done before. Be intentional about talking aloud about things that intrigue you.

Be Sensitive to Your Child’s Interests

I spoke to a parent recently who lamented that her child had no interests. All he wanted to do was stay in his room and play video games. She could not get him interested in school, much less excited about it. Of course, there could be many issues at play in this situation that go beyond our conversation today, but one thing is certain: he did have interests. He was interested in gadgets, technology, games, science fiction, etc.

Sometimes our child’s interests intimidate, bore, and even frighten us. In those cases, it is important to ask for God’s wisdom to know how to use the clues we’ve gathered about our child’s passions, in a positive way.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a novel way to tap into my child’s interests. As I’ve mentioned, she is a bright child, but not an eager student. She has a vast vocabulary and loves for me to read aloud to her, but is a struggling reader. Believe me, this has been a matter of concern, prayer, research, and conversation with my fellow consultants!

At the height of my fretting, we made a trip to the library. I was searching for books and she was begging to check out videos, when we discovered we had arrived on “PAWS to Read” day at the library. An organization brought several dogs into the library so that children could read to them. My daughter was excited. She picked out a book from the stack the librarian had placed on a nearby table, and proceeded to read to every dog there. I had tears in my eyes! It was the first time I had ever seen her voluntarily pick up a book and read aloud. I considered that event as an answer to prayer.

The next week, we set up our own “PAWS to Read” at home, with every stuffed dog I could find so that I could continue to encourage this newfound enjoyment in reading.

Now, your child may not be interested in dogs like mine was, but I encourage you to be sensitive to your child’s interests. Ask God to give you creative ideas that will motivate your reluctant learner. It took some effort on my part to recreate the “PAWS to Read’” program in our living room, so be open to going above and beyond what is comfortable and easy.

A Lifelong Joy

Homeschooling, with its joys and benefits, can also bring a fair amount of stress and worry—especially when our children are not enthusiastic to join in the learning process. Thankfully, God has instilled in all of us a certain level of curiosity.

As popular homeschool expert, author, and speaker, Dr. Debra Bell has said, “Learning and curiosity should be a lifelong joy. Ultimately, it becomes a quest to discover God. Academic engagement is what we want. We don’t want to do anything to undermine that.”

I hope the ideas imparted in this newsletter have awakened you to ways in which you can promote curiosity in your homeschool, and motivate even the most reluctant learner.



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