The Best 2-Step Method to Motivate a Teen

While it might be a stretch to say this is a universal truth for all families, most parents of teens I’ve met have told me that it’s a bit of a struggle to keep them motivated to do well in school.

Why is it tricky?

It’s age appropriate for a teen to be looking for deeper meaning for everything we ask them to do.

They are trying to figure out who they are, what they believe, and what they are going to do with their lives.  Even if they can’t (or won’t) talk about it, these things are on their minds. 

This explains why I get the question “When will I need to know this?” more from 15 & 16-year-olds than from any other group. 

They want to be intrinsically motivated to learn.  There needs to be a reason.


Differences Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation


External rewards can be used to initiate an interest in doing better, but rewards as a motivator loose effectiveness if the student hits an obstacle that seems impossible to overcome.  They will shut down thinking they are trapped in a “no-win” situation.


If they feel helpless, it won’t work.  If they don’t value learning anything about that subject, they won’t care.


Teens are also prone to negotiation.  If a student used to work for rewards, that student might begin to negotiate for bigger rewards.  “If you want me to get an A, I want…” or “What’s in it for me?”


The student who negotiates with parents will also negotiate with teachers.  The attitude is…“What do I get if I do this?” or “But I did some of it.  What’s that worth?”


If the external rewards are not enticing, or if the rewards stop coming, so does the work.  They were getting paid to work before… no pay, no work.  Can’t argue with that.


I’ve been working with parents of teens for many years and have seen several approaches.  Negotiations and rewards almost always fail. 


Usually, parents did not see the change they wanted because the teen decided that the reward offered (or consequence threatened)  wasn’t big enough to offset the discomfort of doing the work.   


However, the parents who used what I’m calling a modified “Carrot-Stick” approach usually succeed and don’t have to repeat it.  Or don’t have to repeat it often.


Step 1: The Intrinsic “Carrot

Motivation must be internal.  As adults, we rely on intrinsic motivation to sustain us to do the work to reach a goal.  Teens need to learn how access that little internal super power, too. 


Instead of an external reward, ask them to talk about their future.  Help them imagine achieving something that will pull them towards a goal that excites them. 


What do they want to do after high school?  Don’t give up after the initial “I don’t know.”  They probably don’t know, but these conversations will help them move their focus to their future. 


I know you have hopes and dreams for them, but this is not that conversation.  This is about what excites them right now about what their future could be like. 

We adults know plans change and we must to learn to adapt.  But remember when you set a goal and were excited about it?  This is about helping your teen get to that place.


Then, ask them to do a little research to find out what they need to do in high school to make that happen.  Do they need to qualify for admission to a dream college or training program? 


Those requirements will likely support what we are trying to have happen in school because we see the big picture. 


While being pulled by that long-term goal, they will become critical thinkers, learn some academics, raise GPAs – ALL the good stuff!


They need to find their “big picture”.


You could also ask them what grade in a class makes them feel accomplished and confident?   This part is important:  follow up with a “why?” 


Move them away from the letter grade by asking  what “accomplished and confident” feels like.  

(Starting with the grade question is a concrete way to open the conversation because school conditions us to think in terms of grades.  But we know grades are not the end-all-be-all indicator of successful adults.)


When grades go up, DO NOT reward the grades!  Reward the effort.  Reinforce the sense of accomplishment.  Praise their grit


When those grades go up, when missing work is turned in, focus on how good it feels to follow-though and get things done

(Teenagers are emotional beings.  “Feeling” the success makes it real.)

Focus on how good it feels to grind towards a goal. 

Focus on how confident they feel knowing they are not helpless and can do hard things.


Teaching about intrinsic motivation will help them understand what it takes to be a successful adult.  This goes way beyond school and grades. 


But it takes times to nurture intrinsic motivation and the end of the semester is coming up fast… 


While teaching their students the slow lesson about intrinsic motivation, what did my effective parents do to speed things along?


Step 2: The “Stick” (as in “carrot and stick”)

The MOST effective parenting maneuver I’ve ever seen was to do something a bit “old school” in combination with the intrinsic motivation work…


Take the phone and make the student earn it back. 


The phone may actually be the primary distraction at school anyway.  Read Cell Phones at School for more about that challenge for kids.


If taking a phone is not going to work, then maybe it’s a video game, or social time – whatever is currently more important to your teen than school.  


As in all things, the strategy that will work for your family depends on what makes sense for the specifics for your family and your teen’s personality.

What To Do if Your Teen IS Motivated, but Still Struggles?

At that point, here are a few common issues I’ve seen come up in my classroom:

  1. Do they need glasses?  If they have glasses, are they wearing them? 
  2. Are they having trouble handling the social issues with friends or classmates?  Emotional responses are hard to shut off and will dominate thoughts while in class. 
  3. Do they have learning gaps that prevent them from learning new material?  This is very common in mathematics and a qualified, experienced tutor will find those gaps, close them, and help students catch up and get ahead.


Thanks for reading!  I’d love to hear about your successes when motivating your teen.  Or help you brainstorm more specifically if things aren’t working yet.  Please feel free to leave a comment below.


If you think I might be the right tutor for your child, or if you have questions about online tutoring, email me at or visit the FAQs page on my website.

I am currently accepting new students for August.

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