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Banishing The Blahs: Helping Our Kids Overcome the Last Stretch of the School Year

Schools may be heading back, but our kids will be dealing with the ripple effects of Covid for many months to come. Here’s a few tricks for helping them combat the Covid Hangover we’re all dealing with as normal life resumes.

It’s strange. We seem to be over the worst of Covid, yet, we aren’t as thrilled as we thought we would be. The “blahs,” that feeling of joyless aimless fog, is one that many people, both adults and kids, can relate to right now. In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Adam Grant called this “languishing” and it can zap motivation and disrupt our ability to focus. This is especially true for students as they transitioned from in-person to distanced learning. Even though schools across the nation are slowly returning to in-person instruction, with so many changes and disruptions in our children’s routines over the last year, it’s no wonder that many students are feeling unmotivated which can in turn trigger negative thoughts and feelings, leading to anxiety or mood related issues. Here are some tricks and tips on how to manage and overcome low motivation.

1. Behavioral Activation

We have all had moments where we felt too tired or unmotivated to get started and kids are no different. Many times, they wait for the motivation to come and end up procrastinating until the very last minute, while feeling stressed and unsettled the whole time. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill for motivation; it does not just appear out of thin air, magically motivating us to plow through that assignment or study for that test.

According to Newton’s Law of Motion, an object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion. In behavioral therapy, this means that action, like a force pushing an object into motion, has to come before motivation. Behavioral activation, using pleasurable activities, is an effective coping strategy for mood disorders; it can positively change brain chemistry, create momentum for motivation and new opportunities for positive experiences. Here are some ideas for pleasurable activities (pandemic edition) to jump-start your child’s motivation engine.

2. The “5-Second-Rule”

No, this is not related to food falling on the floor! This 5-second-rule, touted by motivational speaker Mel Robbins, has to do with how our brain has the tendency to stop us from doing things we really want to do or should be doing by introducing a myriad of worries and doubts. So, the next time you or your child is trying to reach a goal, as soon as the idea comes to mind, practice saying 5-4-3-2-1-GO” and physically make an action towards that goal (i.e.: firing up that laptop, opening that book, sending that text or email). The purpose of the counting is to direct your focus to the goal and away from your brain’s usual worries and fears. If you are “motivated” to learn about the psychology and neuroscience behind this brain hack, 5-4-3-2-1- click here.

This 5-second rule is really effective getting you started on those “undesirable” tasks, ones that are not super exciting or fun. For those “desirable” high interest and sometimes impulsive behaviors, counting 1-2-3-4-5-before acting has the opposite benefit of giving that sacred pause to help the brain put the brakes on.

3. Separation Between Sleep and Work

While it is convenient and comfortable to attend zoom class and do homework in the bedroom wearing pajamas, it is definitely not the best set-up to cultivate motivation. Humans are habitual creatures and our brains are constantly making associations. Bedrooms and pajamas are typically associated with sleep and relaxation which is obviously the opposite condition needed for studying and doing homework. To maximize motivation and also promote sleep hygiene, it is best to set up your child’s work station in another room that is not associated with sleep. Obviously not all families have a library or extra rooms for all the kids to work in. If that’s not possible, try to remind your child to change out of pajamas into “work” clothes so that it cues the brain to turn on its work mode. Engaging in a transitional activity, like going on a walk before starting work or taking a bath after finishing homework, can also help creating that separation between work and rest and give our brain the space to shift into a different mode.

4. Micro-Tasking

When motivation is low, it helps to break down tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. It can be as little as you want it to be, as long as you are continuously moving towards a goal. For example, imagining going out for a run can feel very daunting if you are tired and unmotivated to get out of the house. Micro-tasking starts by simply putting on the right shoe, followed by the left shoe, then opening the front door and so forth. Each step feels small but doable; and they add up to build momentum to get you out of the house.

5. Pleasure Pairing

Piggybacking on the previous suggestion of breaking down tasks into smaller manageable parts, it’s even more effective to break up the task and intersperse it with pleasurable activities. Based on the theory of operant conditioning, behaviors are strengthened through positive reinforcement. This means that a behavior is more likely to happen again if it is reinforced with a reward. When your child is feeling unmotivated about a school assignment, help them think about how they can “reward” themselves after finishing the work. It does not have to be an elaborate reward or activity; it can be as simple as enjoying a favorite snack, talking to a friend, playing a video game, or doing some online shopping. Through this repeated pairing of work and reward, associations are formed and therefore, increase the likelihood of the behavior in the future.

6. Sh!#tty First Draft – Setting Realistic Goals

Many students struggle with perfectionism, that unrealistic and often paralyzing need to avoid mistakes. This often leads to procrastination and makes starting a task difficult. So instead of sitting for hours in front of a blank Word document trying to come up with the “perfect” opening (which is what I tried to do writing this blog), it is important to set realistic goals, specifically for the first draft. To help get the brain going and get passed that perfectionistic mentality, set the goal to do a “ sh!#tty” draft, with spelling errors, incomplete sentences, bullet points, etc. Once everything out in front of you, then there is something to work with.

7. Intrinsic Motivation

During this time when the world around us feels so uncertain, it is extremely important to move away from external motivators such as grades and praise and get your children to explore their internal motivations. Help your child create a vision board, a visual reminder of their long-term goals or what they are working towards. For students, that might be pictures of a summer vacation activity, graduation cap and gown, or a university logo. Visualization using a vision board is a great segue into our next tip on how neuroscience can help overcome low motivation.

8. Positive Visualization

Neuroscience studies have found that the same parts of the brain are activated during physical and mental rehearsal. Just like pro-athletes practice to improve muscle memory and physical performance, positive visualization activates the same neurons and neural networks. This helps the brain to rehearse and develop a plan to obtain a desired goal. By creating a visual image of the goal using all five senses and eliciting the relevant emotions, you can help your child increase their motivation and belief in their ability to achieve that goal thereby making it more likely to be a reality. For more on this, here are three visualization techniques and an article about visualization by Brenna Steiner, an integrative health and meditation consultant.

9. Focus on the Progress

Make it a regular practice of noticing the positives and the progress your child has made. This can be in the form of daily journaling or dinner table check-ins as a family. Another way to help kids focus on the progress is to have them create a to-do list (notepads, whiteboard, on a device) where they write down daily or weekly tasks and then take pleasure in erasing or crossing them off. A helpful tip: On the list, also include tasks that have already been accomplished. The act of crossing items off makes kids see all of the progress they have achieved and motivates them to keep going.

It was a little over a year ago that pandemic brought almost everything as we have known it to a halt. The impact of the past year on mental health is universally felt and needs to be acknowledged. In addition to teaching kids these new coping strategies, it is equally important to normalize and validate the feeling of languishing and support them through all their other feelings during this uncertain time. There are many resources that are available including therapy groups, mindfulness classes, family dinners and other ways to support them.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to CARE-LA if you have any questions about how to best support your children during these unprecedented times.

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