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THE MID-YEAR SLUMP: How to keep kids motivated at school

By: Kiersten Lortz | Published: January, 2023

The cloudier winter months can be hard on our mental health, but we don’t often think about its effect on our children. In addition, there’s a cycle they experience that can make the first couple of months of the year particularly difficult mentally.

Let’s chart the school calendar. Here in the U.S., school begins sometime in August or early September and runs through May or June. Excitement and novelty reign those first two months when teachers and classes are new. November is exciting because Halloween has just passed and the students are gearing up for Thanksgiving and a short week of school. Even before Thanksgiving arrives, though, the thrill of the holiday season is bursting in stores, on TV, and through the radio. Music, decorations, parties, and anticipated activities keep the energy high. The calendar year ends full of magic, and as mothers, we’ve birthed another magical experience for everyone.

January is our postpartum. January brings . . . January brings . . . yep, that’s it, folks. The fun is over and it’s a hard press to the end of the school year with one week of spring break to rest for those final weeks before summer. January can be a tragic month after all the excitement. We try to accentuate one-day holidays like President’s Day and  Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in America, but the doldrum of winter makes it hard. Our family can usually pack in a one-night ski trip but that’s about all we have going for a while.

So how do we keep our children—and ourselves—motivated through these dark, cold months when there’s less excitement and more monotony? First, our family recently purchased a light therapy box. Designed to trick the brain into believing there’s more sunlight, light boxes can initiate a neurosynaptic change in the brain to aid in the release of more serotonin and less melatonin. Beyond this, though, there are many strategies we can implement to keep the energy flowing and positive. Some will work for your children, others won’t. What’s important is that you keep trying until you find the combination that’s best for your children and family.

Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

1. Make exercise and movement a part of every day. When it’s cold, it can be hard to get outside, but it’s still possible. As long as you have the proper clothing, outdoor time is the best physical activity. The fresh air is wonderful for the body and brain and will help your child (and you) sleep better at night. If the outdoors aren’t an option, one of my family’s favorite activities is “Family Olympics”. My husband and I will design 8-10 challenges for each family member to complete, either for time or with a goal. We usually end up not only getting movement but laughing a lot together and making great memories. Small trampolines, swings that attach to the doorway, and even (dare I say it) video games that require full body participation can help burn that pent-up winter energy.

2. Set goals and rewards. Rewards can be as lofty as a ski trip or as simple as a “kids pick” movie night with some snacks and a treat you wouldn’t normally let them eat. We love attending fun events and celebrating “Daily Holidays.” If you missed my December post including daily celebrations, you can read about those here. Really, anything that feels special to your child constitutes a reward.

3. Don’t be afraid to set high expectations. One of the greatest disservices we do our children is to lower the bar. I recently listened to a CEO who said, more than anything, he gets asked why it’s so hard to hire millennials. Among his reasons was the “everyone gets a trophy” culture we’ve created. It doesn’t prepare our children for adult life and keeps them from proving to themselves (not us) what they’re capable of. Set expectations just slightly above their current performance so they learn grit and perseverance, but also gain the satisfaction of accomplishment.

4. Don’t be afraid to remove devices. (unplug TV, take remotes, hide/lock up tablets, etc.) Herein lies the second point that CEO from #3  complained of— our children are addicted to their devices. At our house, my 13-year-old is one of only a handful of her classmates that still doesn’t have a phone. Do I feel bad? No. Research continues to show the harmful effects of social media and electronics on our children. If you have tweens or teens, your child’s risk of depression and anxiety is directly proportional to the number of hours they spend on their device. I could write an entire blog post on this topic alone but, please, be your child’s parent and not their friend. They will survive middle school without a phone (I do think they’re a necessity for high schoolers but that’s another story). Let your child be “uncool.” Let them be bored. Let them make phone calls instead of texts so they learn the social skills they need to navigate the world when they’re adults. And if you do hand over a phone to your child, consider one without internet— calls, texts, GPS, the basics only— until they’re older. (I have no affiliation with Gabb but they’re a great company for this.)

5. Set a timer for work. If you’ve never heard of the Pomodoro method, here’s a quick breakdown. Studies have shown that, for most people, focus and retention can be sustained for about 25-30 minutes, at which point both begin to decrease. Italian Francesco Cirillo would set a timer for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break. The intervals can be shortened or lengthened depending on your preferences and focus, but blocking our time in this way allows us to focus more intensely for more doable periods of time. Using this method with our children makes tasks less intimidating if they know they’ll get a break every 20-30 minutes. Additionally, research points out that we retain best what we study first and last so timed breaks create more starts and stops to aid the brain in retention.

6. Break tasks into small steps. It’s hard to feel motivated when the task feels overwhelming. If studying in segments of time doesn’t work, try breaking up assignments into smaller tasks. Have the student write the steps themselves so they feel in control and decide when they feel the breaks are most natural.

7. Work side-by-side. Working alongside our children puts us on the same team. “We’re in this together.” It’s good for our children to see our efforts and determination to keep going when we’re tired, frustrated, or feel like quitting. Knowing someone is beside you helps us and them.

8. Praise effort, not achievement. Your child may work for hours on a project and not receive the desired grade. Other times, they might put in little effort and receive high marks. What’s most important is their effort, not their grade. Grades do not reflect on us as parents so let that go. Let’s tie our children’s identity to who they are and their values, not outcomes. When a child can say, “I’m a hard worker. I have patience and determination,” that identity motivates them to live up to that standard. When they feel good, they do good. I may not feel good about an outcome, but I always feel proud when I’ve given it my best effort.

Don’t get discouraged or worry your child is lazy during these winter months. A mid-year slump is par for the course (my kids are 18.5, 17, 13.5, and 11- I have a lot of experience with this). Just keep going and don’t give up. Try the strategies above, and if they still aren’t motivated and seem depressed, seek help. We’re all in this together and you’re doing better than you give yourself credit for.

Kiersten Lortz is a published Author, Mindset Coach and Public Speaker. Here is a little more about Kiersten’s journey to finding herself helping others:

At the age of 16, I was diagnosed with depression and began seeing a therapist and taking medication. Three years later, I overdosed. It was later learned that the medication I was on actually increased suicidal tendencies for some youth. A change in medication helped but didn’t solve my problems.

I married my husband at the age of 21 and had two little girls within four years. Each pregnancy brought on more depression and I spent the following 10 years trying to piece myself together. It was divine intervention at the age of 30 that prompted my book and subsequent speaking engagements and I’ve spent the past 10+
years studying personal improvement and mindset. I am now the mother of four and living my best life, and I want to help you create a life you love as well.

By implementing these principles in my own life, I was able to turn my life around and find the piece of myself I thought I’d never recover. I have developed these principles into the POSSIBILITIES coaching program and now help other women find what has been missing in their lives It’s time to let go of what’s holding you back and begin taking the steps toward the life you’ve dreamed of living. This is your time.

Kiersten runs a women’s conference yearly and you can learn more about it here:

If you would like to learn more about Kiersten and her Mindset Coaching head here: 

Interested in learning more about Gabb as mentioned by Kiersten,

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