7 Ways to Motivate Your Slow-Working Student

Yesterday a friend said that if her daughter’s very life depended on finishing her spelling homework, she still wouldn’t work any faster. I can relate. I have a slow worker. The frustrating part as his mom/teacher is that I know he can do better. I’ve seen it. He’s not stuck. He’s just painfully slow.

Whether you’re a homeschool mom or you’re helping your kids with homework after school, there is no torture like a slow student. And if you’re like me, you don’t have the time (or energy or patience or desire) to stand over your child cracking the whip for three hours.

So let’s tackle this problem. Here are seven strategies to motivate your slow-working student and save your sanity.

1. Real Life Connection

One reason kids might lack motivation is because they don’t know why they are working. It feels meaningless. As adults, we can relate. We want to know our work matters. How can we help our kids understand how something like a weekly spelling assignment will impact their future some day?

I often relate my 9-year-old son’s schoolwork to real work. I tell him his math homework is an inventory sheet from his boss. He has to fill it out before the other employees so he can earn the bonus. If he doesn’t work quickly, he’ll get fired. This is exciting for my son because he can’t wait to get out into the workforce. And I literally do fire him sometimes. His mouth drops open when I say, “You’re fired. Sorry, you were too slow.” Then I give him a chance to reapply for the job, but he has to convince me in the interview that he is a fast worker. I’m a nice teacher, but a really tough boss.

2. Timer

A timer is a great way to put some pressure on your student while taking the emotion out of it. Frustration levels are high when the parent keeps asking, “Are you done yet?” The timer does that for us, but without the gritted teeth. At first, my son hated the timer. He felt like it was too much pressure. So, I let him be in control of it. I told him, “You have three pages to finish and one hour to finish them. You decide how much time you want to use for each page and set the timer yourself.” He liked that much better. It still put the pressure on, but he felt more in control of managing his time.

Little ones can do this, too, even if they can’t tell time. They can help you push the buttons and say, “Ready, set, go!” It teaches them time management at a young age. If the sound of the timer going off is too stressful for your little ones, add lots of time so it never actually goes off. Just the visual of a timer in front of them might be enough to motivate them.

3. Tally Marks

When I was an elementary school teacher I would put little post-it notes on my slow workers’ desks. I told them to be in charge of giving themselves a tally mark every time they got distracted. It might sound like a strange concept, like telling our kids to tattle on themselves. But the kids loved being in charge of themselves. In the beginning I had to walk by their desks a couple times and quietly tap the post-it note to remind them to give themselves a mark. But they caught on quickly.

At the end of the day I met with them individually to discuss how many marks they got. We talked about why they got distracted and what they could do better next time. I kept it positive and encouraged them to beat their score the next day. The tally marks helped them visualize how often they were getting distracted.

Kids don’t recognize their own bad habits if we constantly point them out. We become a broken record, white noise in the background. But if we teach them how to look for those bad habits themselves, they will recognize them much faster and work toward fixing them.

4. Physical Activity

There is so much going on in our kids’ bodies. Growing is hard. Sometimes they get distracted simply because they are antsy. With a house full of boys, I’ve learned that getting the ants out is key to their ability to focus.

If my son sits down to do his work and his head immediately lays down on the table, I know we’re in for a battle. So I say, “Go run five laps and come back.” It’s not necessarily a punishment, but sometimes it feels that way. That’s okay. It’s a win-win situation because if he runs the laps, he comes back refreshed and ready to work. If I hint at requiring laps and he really doesn’t want to, he snaps to attention and dives into his work to prove he doesn’t need laps.

5. Bench Marks

When kids get overwhelmed their brains shut down. I find this when I tell them to clean up their rooms. They look around the room and all they see is a huge chaotic pile. They don’t know where to begin, so they just shuffle around and get distracted instead of cleaning. But if I teach them how to break the mess down into bite-sized pieces, they work faster.

The same strategy applies to schoolwork. Instead of telling my son to do an entire grammar lesson, I say, “Do the top section and tell me when you’re done.” That feels much more attainable to him. Then we do another section and another until the lesson is done.

Kids love visuals. Grab a piece of paper and a matchbox car. Draw a simple race track with sections. Have your child move the car each time he/she finishes one math problem, one spelling word, etc. Kids love to track their progress. They are much more motivated to stay on task when they can identify little successes along the way.

6. Rewards and Consequences

As much as possible, I try to connect rewards to real life. For example, I tell my 9-year-old that if he finishes his school he will have more time to play. That’s not a special reward, it’s simply reality. In the real grown-up world, we have more free time when we stay focused and get our work done.

What about consequences? Again, try to relate them to the real world. Sometimes if I notice my slow student having trouble concentrating I will make a general announcement to all the kids: “Whoever finishes the page they are on can grab a snack and start their Lego time.” This way, my slow student knows exactly what he stands to miss out on. It’s a real, concrete consequence.

7. Attitude

All of the strategies above can be summed up in one word: Attitude. How our kids feel about their schoolwork determines their motivation. As much as we can, we want to help them feel positive about their schoolwork. Sometimes that starts by acknowledging that it’s hard.

A common phrase around our school table is, “It’s okay to struggle, but it’s not okay to complain.” When my slow student tells me how hard it is to stay focused, I say, “I know it’s hard. It’s hard to do things we don’t like – for me, too! But this is a chance to practice perseverance. Every time you persevere, you get a little stronger for next time.”

Some kids are naturally self-motivated and some are not. Thankfully, self-motivation can be learned. If you put in the effort to teach it to your kids while they’re young, they will thank you later.

Do you have tips to share? Please leave them in the comments!


For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs  “The culmination of 30 years of evangelical thinking about parenting. Clear guidelines, great illustrations, and very practical.” – Pastor Steve, Atlanta


The Gospel-Centered Mom  “By far the best parenting book I have ever read. Wallace writes as a relatable mom and offers helpful tips while always bringing everything back to the Gospel. This is a short, easy-to-read devotional, with life-changing nuggets in every chapter.” – Amazon reviewer

2 thoughts on “7 Ways to Motivate Your Slow-Working Student

  1. I love this! Thank you for sharing! My 7 year old fits this exactly, and you gave some great ideas that will be trying starting Monday!! I have more to do with my day than stand over him and don’t like always fussing at him, so these may be great ways to help motivate him and make it more pleasant for both of us 🙂


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