Motivation, Part 2: When to stick to your routine, and when to break it

Some days, even the best of us fall into a rut and drag our heels. That’s when it might be time to break your routine and put the pep back into your lessons.

First, a caveat: there are times when it makes sense to stick to a routine. The early days/weeks of settling into a routine are not the time to deviate, because you need to establish a rhythm. The kids being antsy in those days has more to do with settling down to a new routine than being bored with one. Similarly, if you’ve just taken a break or experienced some disruption, it’s a good idea to get back into the swing of things before breaking away again; otherwise the kids will jump on every and any opportunity to wheedle their way out of lessons. After all, negotiation is an Olympic sport for most kids – and, to be fair, a life skill. The trick is knowing when to push for change and when to go with the flow. Your job as parent-teacher is to teach them this skill along with subject-specific topics.

Of course, there are legitimate times and reasons for breaking a routine. If both the teacher and the students are dragging their feet, it’s time to shake things up. Other sure signs are procrastination and wandering attention spans. Luckily, the cure is simple: break your routine. Ways to do that include:

  • Schedule a field trip (see Lessons Plans To Go or Lesson Plans Ahoy for tips on designing an educationally sound field trip versus just any old trip).
  • Hold lessons in a new location: head outdoors, to a different room, or a public library. Everyone loves the novelty of outdoor lessons, and though outdoor settings have their share of distractions, it’s usually a refreshing experience for kids and teachers alike.
  • Change times: reward the kids with a later start or a curtailed day. The key here is to make it clear this is a reward and not the start of a permanent change! You can do lessons in pajamas or with a special snack – anything to get over the initial hump of starting a lesson.
  • Offer a new face: if Mom is the primary teacher of certain subjects, let someone else have a turn. Like going outdoors, there’s room for distraction here, but also room for fun and new insights.
  • Turn the tables: assign the kids to teach the teacher, either in a subject-specific lesson they research or in an area the child knows more about than the adult (such as a lesson on certain types of music or game or computer skill). Just make sure you set clear expectations for the child, such as requiring an introductory section, three exercises and some way for the “student” to demonstrate what they’ve learned at the end. Kids love turning the tables on adults, so they’ll have a lot of fun – and gain a little appreciation for the teacher’s role, too.
  • Use different resources: for example, if you usually use a certain math book, try turning to the newspaper and pulling practical lessons out of that. Similarly, you can use a fiction book to explore science. Science experiments in general are a great, hands-on way to mix things up. Another possibility is to find an educational game – either a board game or one of the many legitimate educational games available on the Internet ( is one example, or explore the links in my books).
  • Allow a different format, such as free choice learning or research in a library or on the Internet – just be sure to set clear guidelines on what constitutes good use of time. Research is an important skill; many students struggle to narrow things down given the overwhelming quantity of resources. It’s a good idea to sit with a student to show them how to do this rather than expect them to do it entirely on their own. That’s also a good time to discuss the hallmarks of a legitimate source versus shaky sources.
  • Use different formats: assign a photo essay, a video report, or an art project (see last post on photo essays).
  • Change subjects: think about areas you might have been neglecting lately and put more emphasis on them. Get moving with PE, make music, or create an artwork if you haven’t done so lately.

All of these suggestions will bring a certain degree of distraction into lessons, but the main goal is to make learning fresh again. Good luck!