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Motivation or Engagement in Time of Distance Learning

By Lily Gonzalez , ASFM MSHS Psychologist 

“My son is just not motivated”. “If you’d only be willing, you’d be finished with this homework already”. “She is not engaged, she starts working on something, gets distracted and doesn't get finished”.  It is likely that we have heard or said comments like these in different contexts. However, what makes us really able and prepared to learn particularly during these times of distance learning?  

Some say that motivation is the most important part of learning, but in reality, learning is a highly complex quotidian experience. It entails not only cognitive (mental) processes but also emotional and behavioral components. Distance learning is putting students' skills of self-regulation, task initiation, time management, as well as motivation and engagement, etc. to the test.  Let’s briefly examine some ideas that may help us better support our children's learning and academic performance. 

Engagement refers to students’ active involvement in, and commitment to, academic and social activities (Li & Lerner, 2013). A student that is engaged tends to deliver outcomes such as better academic achievement, stronger emotional well-being, and peer acceptance (Finn & Zimmer, 2012).  

Student engagement, especially cognitive–behavioral engagement, is closely related to motivation. Engagement and motivation vary, however; in that motivation is required but not sufficient for engagement (Reschly & Christenson, 2012). Someone may be extremely motivated to perform in sports but she may not have the skills, adequate instruction, or she may be negatively affected by her peers. 

Student engagement is influenced by a variety of elements. Individual characteristics play a critical role, as does the learning environment, both at home and at school. Individual characteristics include previous academic achievement; social and emotional skills; viewpoints toward school;  goals, values, and aspirations; and the presence or absence of interfering behaviors and emotions. The learning environment that impacts student engagement is shaped by the school and home methods of instruction, the curriculum (i.e. what is taught and expected), teaching effectiveness, and parental support and style of parenting,  among others (Bear & Harris, 2018). 

The following recommendations may have a positive impact on student engagement (Bear & Harris, 2018): 

  1. Communicate the benefits of education and the importance of being engaged in school. Communicate the value that education has for you and your family. Rather than just talking about this once, frequently discuss community role models and use your  personal life experiences as examples.  
  2. Demonstrate an authoritative* approach to parenting by being both responsive and demanding. Find a healthy balance between “being there” emotionally and socially for your children and being demanding. The latter term means establishing academic and behavioral expectations, consistent routines (like homework-times), and having clear rules and consequences. 
  3. Closely monitor and assist with homework assignments, as appropriate. Provide set times and appropriate spaces to do school work. Also, have clear expectations and regularly check in to ensure work is complete and handed in.
  4. Emphasize effort and persistence more than ability. Support the development of what is called a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. The purpose is to highlight that with persistence and effort we can achieve goals and improve performance and that “intelligence” is not a fixed attribute but rather something that grows with practice.
  5. Emphasize mastery goals and mastery in external and self-evaluations. Encourage your child to focus on  personal progress to conquer new skills rather than to compare their skills to others. Mastering the material is more important than getting a grade. Self-evaluation involves asking the question “what did I learn and how can I do better?”.
  6. Challenge your child to set short-term and long-term goals and to develop plans for achieving them. Goals should be realistic and clearly defined so that is easy to determine when they are reached. Consider both academic and behavioral targets, and discuss action steps that can help your child attain their goal. Observe and recognize the progress (the steps) towards the goal, just as you would celebrate the goal itself. Suggest a method for monitoring progress, such as a completion chart or a graphic organizer. 
  7. Contact the teacher if you are uncertain about the academic expectations. As a parent, particularly during this time of distance learning, you may not  be aware of or clear about the expectations of each of your child’s different classes. Engage in dialogue with your child about what is expected of them from each class, and, if further clarification is necessary, contact the teacher together or the team leader. There are parameters, schedules for times of instruction, independent work time, deadlines, and platforms to view and track progress. If you are unsure, don't hesitate to contact the school to be clear about this. Ask for a conference online, if it is hard to follow written instructions. 
  8. Encourage your child to balance school, internet use, and physical activities. Allow your child to choose among different activities and events and monitor this balance. Even better, set a time to play games or exercise with your children. Part of this balance may be finding safe ways to support the community in need and participate in these activities as a family. 
  9. Take care of yourself. Make self-care and mental wellbeing a top priority. It is very difficult for a child to commit to school work when experiencing personal or family struggles with mental health (anxiety, grief, depression, etc.). Health in general, and mental health in particular, are crucial for appropriate engagement and motivation. Mental health struggles are not character flaws, they  are health experiences and as such, they need to be discussed, treated, and managed. Asking for support to the appropriate stakeholders outside your family is a way to be proactive. 
  10. If your child is disengaged from school duties, or poorly motivated, work with the school. Your child’s teachers, learning specialists, psychologists, and counselors can provide interventions and support. These interventions may include:
    • Initiate or enhance school-home communication and collaboration. Working closely together to improve the school engagement by having a student-parent-teacher conference, using a behavioral contract, after-school support by teachers, using electronic postings to verify work completion, etc.
    • Initiate or recommit to Counselor, Psychologist  or Learning Specialists interventions to monitor and/or strengthen certain academic, social or emotional skills.
    • Tutoring: Outside of school commitment with a tutor to develop  or reinforce skills. 

Distance learning, the way we are living it world-wide, is a new experience for the educational community (students, parents, teachers, and staff), and will take some time to adapt to. Let’s be flexible and willing to dedicate time to assimilate what works best for each of us.

*Authoritative parenting approach refers to a  balanced combination of responsiveness (caring, warmth, respect to your child’s needs) and being demanding (or structured).  This contrasts with an authoritarian approach which is much more demanding and structured, and often too harsh.

Recommended Resources:


  • Bear, George & Harris, Angela.(2018). Engagement and Motivation: Helping Handout for Home. National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Bear, G. G., & Minke, K. M. (2018). Helping Handouts: Supporting Students at School and Home. National Association of School Psychologists. 
  • Finn, J. D., & Zimmer, K. S. (2012). Student engagement: What is it? Why does it matter? In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 97–131). New York, NY: Springer
  • Li, Y., & Lerner, R. M. (2013). Interrelations of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive school engagement in high school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42, 20–32. doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9857-5 
  • Reschly, A. L., & Christenson, S. L. (2012). Jingle, jangle, and conceptual haziness: Evolution and future directions of the engagement construct. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 3–20). New York, NY: Springer