How to develop motivation in kids

How to develop motivation in kids

In today’s educational environment, we are more aware than ever that student motivation and engagement is essential for lasting learning. I can’t tell you how many times as a school counselor, I had discussions with teachers, parents and kids about being motivated. However, I’m afraid we rarely discussed how important intrinsic motivation is vs. extrinsic motivation. In our fast paced pressure cooker world, we were often simply focused on what would work quickly and with the least effort.  Unfortunately, when we talk about motivating students, with rewards and consequences, we lose sight of the fact that they are already motivated — just often not to do what the adults want them to do! Understanding motivation is important, but we need to work with students’ motivational systems that are already in place, rather than impose motivation from the outside (i.e. extrinsically).

We all have an intrinsic need for personal autonomy, self-determination, and to feel that we are choosing our behavior rather than being controlled externally. As Susan Fowler wrote in her excellent book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does, there are three important characteristics of an environment that motivates:  Here they are:

Autonomy: Help kids be aware that they have choices and are the source of their own actions.  Encourage them to be active participants in everyday decision making.

Relatedness:  We all have a need to care about others and to be cared for by others. Provide an environment that helps everyone feel they belong.

Competent:  We all want to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities.  Help students recognize their strengths and help them hold a vision of successful completion of their goals.

In addition, the work of Edward Deci and William Ryan, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, elaborates on the importance of what has come to be called “intrinsic motivation.” Once we have provided students with standards and instructions for how to do things, it is important to encourage and emphasis autonomy in instructions rather than control. Here are a few more tips based on their research:

  • Provide choice but keep it open-ended rather than controlling. This teaches children to use their own critical thinking skills rather than relying on adults to solve problems and answer questions.
    • Open ended: What kind of book would you like to read?
    • Controlling: Do you want to read a book on the Civil War or the Revolutionary War?
  • Give instructions that encourage support and autonomy rather than control.
    • Controlling: Put away the art materials.  Don’t mix up the crayons and markers.  Pick up paper on the floor and put your heads down when you are finished.
    • Open ended: Let’s clean up the art supplies and make the area nice for the next group to use them.

We all have many opportunities to help kids develop intrinsic motivation that will serve them well as adults.

1 Comment

  1. […] Encourage initiative and ownership.  If they want to start a lemonade stand or create a neighborhood newspaper, help them think through the details.  Teach them about supply and demand, marketing, profit and loss.  Have them purchase the supplies so they understand what it means to make a profit.  Share stories of how you started a business at their age or of well-know entrepreneurs and the businesses they started as kids.  For instance, Tony Hsieh, owner of Zappos shoes made and sold spirit wear buttons as a teen-ager and Warren Buffet sold chewing gum door to door.  There are lots of kids today who have created businesses that are highly profitable: 8 kids making a million dollars  […]

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