Is It Possible to Motivate Kids?

Kids and Motivation

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. And that usually becomes a plan for stickers, behavior charts and rewards. Unfortunately, when we talk about motivating students, with rewards and consequences, we lose sight of the fact that they are already motivated — just not motivated 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.

Competenc  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: Pick a book to read off of the reading list that was provided.
  • 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. What can you do to help?

We all have many opportunities to help kids develop intrinsic motivation that will serve them well as adults.  Here is a great video by kids for kids that can give one more strategy to overcome resistance and improve motivation. 


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