The #1 Skill You Need To Motivate Kids

It’s been about a year since I started substitute teaching. I’ve pondered and studied and observed and worked hard to understand what it takes to motivate and reach kids.

When I leave school at the end of the day, one thing determines whether it was a good day or not. Have I earned the respect of the kids I taught that day? If I did, it was good. If not, well, meh. The number one skill you need when working with children is . . . the ability to earn their respect.

Words on a blue and orange background: Steal these tips from the classroom to build respect at home

What Is Respect?

All the classrooms in our school have a list of Classroom Rules, Expected Behavior, (or something similar that means the same thing). Usually right at the top if the list is “Show Respect”!

Do kids know what this means? I asked my 2nd grader that question. She couldn’t define respect in so many words, but she was familiar with the idea of it.

I did what everyone does when we don’t know the answer to something. I asked Google. I typed in “definition of respect for kids”. My favorite answer was at

“Respect means you care enough to think about others’ feelings before you act.” 

-Talking with Trees Books

I realized it’s a big concept that kids do well to master as soon as possible, not just in school but also in life. Schools are being proactive and doing a lot more to help their students learn about respect and how to show it, which makes me super happy! 

I’ve noticed there are teachers who easily earn the respect of their students and some who struggle. The biggest thing that helps teachers earn respect is consistently providing consequences.

Appropriate Consequences Earn Respect

When I say consequences, I don’t mean punishment. Some synonyms for the word “consequence” are “result” or “effect”. 

Here’s a real-life example. One day, I was working with a class of 2nd graders. It was field day at our school, and they were a competitive bunch. The teacher informed me that they had been warned. If their competitiveness led to any unsportsmanlike behavior, the consequence should be instant. The student or students who didn’t keep it positive and fun were to sit out for the next event.

These were perfect consequences in every way. They were immediate. They were directly related to the behavior, and they affected only the ones who didn’t follow expectations.

Negative consequences of not following expectations are important for short-term results. But if you want your group to keep being willing to do what you ask of them, you also need some positive consequences.

The very first positive consequence should be praise.  For praise to be effective, it needs to be specific. For example, “I like the way you waited until I was done talking, even though I could tell you really wanted to interrupt.”

One teacher I work with uses bead necklaces as a reward for doing what’s expected. Kids earn them throughout the day for following directions or not interrupting the teacher. This tactic works because the positive consequence is tangible.

Another positive consequence can be earning a privilege like extra time with classroom technology or playing an extra game after their work is done. This one works well to motivate.

How Does Using Consequences Help You Earn Respect?

So, how does using consequences earn you respect? By making clear what is expected, defining logical consequences, and enforcing them, the teacher shows he or she cares. That teacher cares about how the students feel, about whether they are treated fairly, and about their safety.

The students usually want to show that type of teacher respect. They care about the teacher’s feelings because the teacher cares about theirs.

silhouette of mother and child at sunset with a lake background
Mutual respect strengthens bonds

How to Bring Classroom Management Techniques Home

In school, this is called classroom management. For parents, this is often called discipline. Here’s another word that usually has a negative connotation. But once again, the true meaning of this word has been hidden in controversy. Discipline is simply teaching a child not to do things that are dangerous or innapropriate.   

Discipline is an important part of parenting. It teaches your child that you care. It teaches them exactly how to act in a safe and respectful way. Parents who set limits and stick to them are teaching their child how to show respect and self-control as an adult.

Doing this right takes practice. You need to have things figured out ahead of time.

I’ve found when I don’t have a plan, or I don’t stick to it, that’s when things fall apart. So if you work with kids or have kids, steal these tactics from the successful teacher’s handbook.

Five Steps to Building a Respectful Home or Classroom

  1. Make sure every child clearly knows what’s expected of him or her. Even better, let them help you make the list.
  2. Make sure they know what is considered respectful in your space and what’s not, and why.
  3. When they follow the rules, don’t forget to compliment them. Everyone thrives on compliments, praise, and recognition.
  4. When they break a rule, give ONE warning.
  5. If they break it again, follow through right away and every time with a logical consequence.

I have been trying to teach my 4-year-old how not to screech and whine for what she wants. I have been making a critical mistake. I need to act after just one warning.

Giving just one warning is an important step. The more often you repeat a warning, the less likely you are to follow through with a consequence. And kids know this. They sense you are not really paying attention.

Have a Plan and Stick to It!

So if you want to earn the respect of the children in your life, make sure you have a plan. Think about what’s important to you. What do you want them to learn? How do you want them to treat other people? What are their responsibilities?

Don’t assume they know exactly what you expect. Tell them. Then tell them exactly what will happen if they don’t follow your expectation.

Follow through immediately with the consequence, either positive (such as specific praise) or negative (such as withdrawing a privilege). 

Throughout this process make sure your tone and demeanor are positive and respectful. This way, the focus is on behavior. The child will not conclude that you don’t like them or that they aren’t good enough.

Consequences are a tool that, when used properly, earn you respect.

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