Motivating Kids to Practice

By Dr. Rick Bavaria


During the transition from lazy summer days to hectic, back-to-school routines, it can be difficult to get kids motivated to practice.

“Hey, cabbie, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice! Practice!”

Yes, old joke. But kids need to practice to get on the Honor Roll, the softball team, the next level of algebra, the cello solo, or a great performance in the school play. Just about anything worth doing well takes practice. All those athletes, scholars and performers who make it look so easy? Don’t be fooled, kids. They practice!

Here’s a word teachers use: automaticity. It’s the ability to perform a task without even thinking about it. You need it for math, writing, reading, spelling, organizing, time management and studying. The more automatic skills are, the less time spent on time wasters, like complaining.

Practice is intentionally improving performance. Call it what you want – drill, train, practice, rehearse, exercise, prepare, workout, run through – it doesn’t matter. Just make it a part of your kid’s learning routine. Here’s how:

Choose a subject or skill together.
Just as you decide on school goals together, decide which subject or skill you’ll concentrate on. Put a simple, easily-tracked measurement to it. Practice math, cello, French, free-throws or science presentation for, say, twenty minutes.

Make it routine.
Routines provide structure, stability, and organization. They allow kids to know what’s expected of them, and they let kids know what comes next. When you set routines, you show kids what you value.

Have some fun.
Practice doesn’t have to be dull. Make a game of it, relax, sing if you have to. Encourage kids to practice together with study buddies in a relaxed atmosphere.

Smiling and cheerful schoolgirls reading a book together at school

Highlight role models.
Point out others who are models of the skills you want to learn. Kids like to have “heroes” to emulate and learn from.

Show how you practice.
Share stories of how you mastered a difficult skill by diligent practice and perseverance. Adults aren’t born with highly polished skills – they work at it. Sharing experiences that were not successful shows the power of persistence.

Get help.
If you notice that your child is behind in a particular subject, get help early. Talk to your child’s teacher about their progress and research tutoring options. Sylvan offers a variety of tutoring options for kids, from homework help to after-school STEM courses, there is a program that fits every child’s needs! Contact your local Sylvan center to learn more!

Get feedback from others.
The best practice happens when there’s someone who can provide quick feedback. A coach, classmate, teammate, study buddy, older sibling, or tutor. A patient, inspiring “expert.”

Build mental muscle.
Practice builds mental muscle and puts the brain on auto-pilot for repeated activities. Math, playing a musical instrument, throwing a football, memorization, and, for teens, driving.

Award patience and persistence.
When kids show steadfastness and tenacity ─ when they stick in there ─ reward their diligence with your recognition. If it’s a particularly and personally important skill, a reasonable reward is always a good idea.

Learning to calculate, high five success

Stay positive.
Practice doesn’t come easily to everyone. Be supportive, encouraging, and upbeat, especially when commitment falters, enthusiasm slips and progress seems to slow down. Kids need adults to be there for them.