Building confidence and motivation – a simple idea that makes a big difference

Do you know how to motivate your child to study? Can you help to build their confidence in their ability to learn and remember? It’s not easy!

In this post I want to share some experiences that may help.

First of all, why do children loose confidence and motivation? There are, of course, many reasons, but one is that, although they’ve worked hard at learning a topic, when it comes to a test, they’ve not done well. Or maybe they’ve done badly in class, despite their best efforts. There are many possible reasons for this, but the point is that they have done badly despite their best efforts. What’s the message they get? It’s not worth making the effort. And, when they look at everything they have to learn, it seems endless. How is it possible to be motivated to study a huge subject if you’re experience is that you don’t succeed even when you try?

lightbulbIn my twenty years as a tutor, I can remember many cases in which something simple has made a big difference. I’ll share three short stories and then make some practical suggestions for what you can do to help. I won’t use real names to avoid embarrassment! All three are related to maths, but the idea is relevant to all subjects.


Jill hated maths. She was studying for her GCSEs and was borderline between D and C grade. But she wanted more than a C to achieve her academic goals. But she was so frustrated that she’d often burst into tears. Studying was a real struggle. During one session, while we were reviewing a particular problem, she sat back, looking confused. I asked here what was the problem and she said, “I understand it. I know how to do it – it’s really easy. I thought it was difficult but it’s not. I’ve been trying to think of really complicated ways to do it, but it’s really simple.” So I suggested we look at another problem and see if we could find out how simple it could be. All of a sudden, she could figure it out. To cut a long story short, here attitude to maths changed and she went on to study it at A-level.


Alex, an old friend of mine, was telling me about his experiences with maths at school. He remembered a single, distinct moment which changed his attitude. It was similar to Jill’s. He was not interested in maths at all and didn’t do well, but one day, while studying quadratic equations, he realised that he could do it. In fact it was so satisfying to make up an equation, solve it and test himself to confirm that he was right, that he ended up solving equations for fun! His whole outlook changed in an instant.


piFor Sara, maths was a mystery. She rarely did well in class or in tests, although she claimed to have tried her best. As my student, she did what I suggested, but without enthusiasm – until one day. We were working on circles using the formulas for area and circumference. Both of these include the Greek letter Π (Pi). Pi was mysterious. “I don’t GET Pi,” she told me. So I explained that it was simply a number that you get when you divide the circumference of any circle by its diameter and that the idea was known about well before the Greeks named it after one of their letters. “Is that all it is?” she asked. She couldn’t believe it was such a simple idea. From then on, we made it almost a game to search for more ‘is that all it is?’ moments in maths. She found lots of them!


Many children say that they ‘sort-of’ understand most things. They don’t have the confidence to say that they really know a topic well. Rarely can they say that they understand something to the extent that they could confidently explain or teach it. If they can, it usually increases confidence and self-esteem across all subjects.

It is my experience that expending a little effort focusing on just one topic until they really, really understand it, can make a big difference to a child’s overall confidence. It acts as a positive reference; they now know that they have the ability to learn something – to really understand it – and this can have a dramatic knock-on effect. If they can learn one difficult thing, then they can learn another, and another. Sometimes a child will say that they’re just not good at anything. Reminding them of those times when they were able to succeed can snap them out of their pessimism.

What does it take to be sure that they understand completely?

Firstly, the topic must be defined precisely. For example, how to use a particular method to solve quadratic equations, or understanding how to increase resistance in a simple electrical circuit and why it works. Then, ideally, there should be someone to listen to them and ask questions. You, the parent, may be able to do this if you have some knowledge. Or a teacher, if they have time, or a tutor if you can afford one. Otherwise, you’ll have to collect relevant questions from the course textbook, revise guide or an online resource such as BBC Bitesize. Testing your knowledge is vital to monitor learning, but it’s something that students rarely do enough of.

If you can help with testing, that’s great. Otherwise, have them explain a topic to you in such as way that you can understand. Ask them what questions can they find to test their knowledge. Make a collection of them from books and the internet. I’ll give you some if you’re stuck!

Don’t forget that I’m suggesting, at first anyway, that they focus on just one topic and learn it well, no matter how long it takes. They’ll then have that experience of fully understanding something and you can say, “…well, you figured that topic out really well, so you know you can learn difficult stuff – how about doing the same with other topics?”

Children really do want to understand and do well, even if they say they can’t be bothered. Just a few positive experiences can make a crucial different to their confidence and motivation.

Get in touch if you have any similar experiences or advice you can give to parents who want to help.

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