desks lined up in a classroom

Schools Zap Kids' Motivation and Mental Health

Why motivation matters, how schools stamp out motivation, and what you can do

Is it ever a good idea to send your kids to school?

I homeschool my kids for many reasons. I dislike conventional schooling for many reasons. One reason: Schooling zaps children's intrinsic motivation.

Why it matters: Intrinsic motivation is the key to so much: discipline, excellence, getting stuff done, greater emotional wellbeing, and a lot more. Read more about how motivation works.

The context: Conventional schooling

Most people attend conventional schools. The kind that, typically:

  • Look like prisons, not beautiful places to be (try this quiz: which buildings are schools?)
  • Assign hours of homework each week
  • Require active, curious young people to sit still indoors and attend to whatever the adult at the front of the room wants them attend to
  • Teach to the test
  • Care more about scores and grades than the development of children as individuals
  • Do little to prepare people for living usefully or happily in the world (e.g., this, this, this)
concrete and brick building with four narrow windows and a few long flat windows, surrounding a parking lot, looking a lot like a prison, nothing green or cheerful in sight
School or prison?

Many people will disagree with me about the extent to which all the things I listed are either true of all schools or are actually all that bad.

Many people attended conventional schools and "turned out fine."

Some kids like school. Some kids flourish in schools. Some kids like the structure. Some kids have horrible home lives so school is a safer, nicer place for them.

All of these statements can be true AND it can also be true that conventional schools are not designed for optimal student learning.

Some kids do not thrive in schools.

Some kids who flourish in schools might flourish even more in other learning environments. Schools are not necessary to have structure in daily life. The existence of abusive families is not an argument for schools per se; it's an argument for helping families and children (schools do not have to be the solution).

The statistic to know:

  • In national surveys, children report being less happy in school than in any other setting. Suicide and depression rates are up to 100% higher during school months than in the summer. More than 80% of high school students say school is their main source of stress. Decades of research show that chronic stress impairs learning.


(Read: Book Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink)

Why conventional schooling torpedos motivation

First, a quick primer on motivation (long primer here):

We have two types of motivation:

  1. Intrinsic: Acting with a full sense of choice; self-determining; doing things that are rewarding in themselves. We are intrinsically motivated by three core psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (social connection).
  2. Extrinsic: Acting with an element of external pressure or external demand toward specific goals. We are extrinsically motivated to gain rewards and praise or avoid negative consequences, disapproval, or feelings of guilt.

Schooling is at odds with all three intrinsic motivators. Schooling predominantly uses extrinsic motivators.

The bottom line up front: If you decrease people's opportunities to be intrinsically motivated, they will be less intrinsically motivated. If you increase their extrinsic motivators, they will be less intrinsically motivated.

Less intrinsic motivation = less discipline, less happiness, less long-term planning, less independence, less satisfying life.

As John Holt wrote,

“This idea that children won't learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, "positive and negative reinforcements," usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, "If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything." Even worse, they say, "If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything."

It is the creed of a slave.”

Watch my TEDx talk: Kids Can't Be Taught But They Love to Learn

Going deeper: Autonomy

Autonomy is doing things by choice. It's the feeling of volition and control in your own life, the feeling that you have some power to affect the world around you and that your life is self-determined. A lack of autonomy can lead to depression.

Autonomy is crushed in many schools. Kids are forced to attend school, whether they want to or not. They generally have no say in which school they attend, which classrooms they are in, who their teachers are, or who their peers are. They have little say over their daily schedule. They have little choice in when to wake up, where to go, what to do, where to stand, what to read, where to sit, when to eat, what to write, and so on. There is very little choice.

Some of the choices children do have are superficial at best. Parental pressure into certain after-school extracurriculars and constant scheduled adult-supervised activities eliminates even more choice.

Even teachers are frequently faced with a lack of control. I know teachers who quit teaching because they were required to follow a very strict curriculum, set by the school board, that meant they had no creativity in the classroom to teach their own way, engage kids the way they wanted to, or engage kids at all.

(Read: Why Outdoor Time is Important for Kids)

Going deeper: Competence

Competence is developing mastery in different areas, activities, or skills. It's the sense that we're leveling up. (Read more about How to Level Up At Anything.)

Sometimes, children do develop competence. They feel like they're learning; they're getting good grades; they enjoy at least some of their classes. This is partly why some kids do fine in schools—they can successfully play the game of school.

Sometimes, though, there's not much sense of learning or progression. Work can be remedial or slow-paced. Children with aptitude for a subject may feel like they aren't allowed to pursue their interests or move forward. Academic subjects are atomized; there's no connections built between them, which can make it harder to see integrated progress. There may be little connection between subjects one year and the next, depending on who's teaching the class and what curriculum is being used, which also halts the sense of progression.

In addition, self-discipline is needed to develop competence. Self-discipline is increased by intrinsic motivation (read more); when intrinsic motivation flags—like when children feel they're not developing competence—so can discipline. People without discipline won't reach their long-term goals; they may not even bother to have long-term goals.

Going deeper: Relatedness

Relatedness is developing meaningful social relationships and community.

In schools, children are not allowed to freely associate with other people. Their social time is strictly regulated, and almost entirely limited to people within a year of their own age. They are often not involved in the wider community and thus do not have the opportunity to develop deep connections outside of their school and immediate family.

One of the biggest relational problems: Children want older children as role models. They want to be role models for younger children. Peer learning is real and works. Older children scaffold and support younger children. If you've ever seen older siblings helping their younger siblings or leading their younger siblings in play, you'll know exactly what I mean. Schools deprive children of older peers to learn from and follow. Schools deprive children of the opportunity to be the older peer teaching and leading younger children.

If you've been to a conventional school, you've probably seen the cliques, bullying, rivalries, drama, etc. (If you haven't, watch any show or read any book featuring a school—you'll get the gist.) Anecdotally, all that stuff happens far less, or even not at all in mixed-age schools, homeschool groups, and many other alternative or unconventional schools. Parents afraid of "teen drama" ought to ask whether it is teens, or the environment most teens are stuck in (where they are deprived of autonomy, developing competence, and relationships), that is the core of the problem.

The bottom line again

Schools don't support our three core motivations: the pursuit of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Because these intrinsic motivations aren't supported, intrinsic motivation decreases.

(If you want studies to back all this up, they exist; numerous studies have shown decreases in intrinsic motivation for school-related activities throughout the school years—and in some cases, motivation decreased less when autonomy was supported!)

(Read: Hunt, Gather Parent: What Ancient Culture Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans)

An aside: Video games and motivation

My theory about why so many kids find video games appealing is that they simulate all three core motivations. In the game, you can make choices that affect the world and the outcome of the game—autonomy. You level up; there are clear ways to progress and improve; you can tell when you're becoming more competent. Many games are social outlets; team games played with friends online. Or you develop parasocial relationships with characters in the game. Video games tap into all our intrinsic motivators.

What do schools promote?

Conventional schools are all about extrinsic motivation. They promote short-term achievement, not the long-term cultivation of a whole person.

Consider the system:

  • Grades on assignments and classes (schools that use portfolios rather than grades are better).
  • Frequent testing.
  • Testing for surface-level knowledge rather than deep understanding (see Bloom's taxonomy).
  • Learning a subject for the purpose of getting a high grade in the class—not to satisfy curiosity or the pursuit of understanding.

But maybe, kids work harder, learn more, and get higher grades if they get better, tangible rewards. Maybe?

Some schools tried that. (Described in How Children Succeed by Paul Tough) These schools used a variety of external incentivisation programs in attempts to raise grades and improve student outcomes—rewarding teachers when their students perform well on tests, rewarding students with cell-phone minutes or other gifts for good performance, rewarding families financially if their kids score well.

None of these programs had positive long-term effects. They were a wash! Giving kids, teachers, and families more extrinsic rewards did nothing for kids' learning and behavior. Seems like schools ought to be promoting intrinsic motivation instead, hm?

Schools promote passivity

Because schools stamp on autonomy, they also promote passivity. Children internalize the school message of waiting for permission to learn or to act. They wait for someone to tell them what to learn. They think they need a class or a degree before they're qualified to know or to do. They are not drivers of meaningful action because they expect someone else to have to teach them or tell them what's possible.

When people are not encouraged to explore, learn, and act of their own volition, they stop. Intrinsic motivation decreases.

The result is passive adults. People who are happy to complain about the status quo, but who don't realize that they could put in the work to change things. They're stuck in the status quo because they've been trained to wait for permission. Don't disrupt the system!

But as Adam Grant writes in his book Originals (read my review), creative, successful people disrupt systems and take risks. They're not passive.

(Read: Why Interest-Led Learning Works)

A little child in a coat sitting in the sand on a riverbank, looking toward a four-year-old girl with a ponytail who is standing and a six-year-old boy who is kneeling in the sand; the girl holds a handful of sand. In the background is a river and across the river is snow and pine trees on low hills.
A recent school day: At the beach with friends, mixed-age play, experiencing the world!

Where can my kids go, if not school?

If you'd like to raise highly motivated kids with strong self-discipline, a sense of personal autonomy, who can change the world—pull them out of conventional schools (whether public or private). Leave the standard model for children's education. That'll give them the best chance. Yes, some kids do fine in schools—but do you want to risk that your kids are the ones who won't?

Look into alternative models of education, such as:

  • Montessori schools
  • Waldorf schools
  • Forest schools
  • Classical academies
  • Microschools
  • Sudbury schools
  • Acton Academies
  • Self-directed learning centers
  • Homeschooling co-ops
  • Unschooling groups

Look for online directories of co-ops and groups. For instance, the ASDE lists self-directed learning communities. Many homeschoolers organize online via Facebook groups or mailing lists, and these groups often keep lists of local co-ops, activities, and resources.

(Read: Looking Ahead: Here's This Year's Preschool and Kindergarten Homeschool Plan (Fall 2022))

All these education alternatives have different strengths and focuses. Which one you choose will depend on your personal educational philosophy, your children's temperaments and interests, what's available in your geographic location, and what's affordable for you, among other factors. Different educational environments and schooling models may work for your children at different ages as well.

Some cities will have some of these alternatives available as a public school option (e.g., I had a friend in Boston whose kid attended a public Montessori school), but many will be private. That doesn't mean they're unaffordable, though! You may be able to get state money or a voucher for your kids to attend a school. There may be local programs that give homeschoolers support and funding that will help pay for alternatives. The program may have financial aid available for families. (See more tips for affording homeschooling!)

As John Holt wrote,

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions—if they have any—and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

Learn more about us.


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Curious about our life and journey? Here are some good places to start reading:

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