How can we motivate our children? Is there a way to teach them to do something because they feel motivated, not because we told them to and, if so, what is it?
This concern is pretty common despite the fact that the way motivation works is rather straightforward. In simple terms, we strive to do more of what we like and feel good about, and less of what we dislike and feel bad about. So why is this still a challenge when it comes to motivating children?
First, we need to understand that our wishes are different from those of our children. We may feel that homework or piano lessons are a priority, but the child wants to play his game instead. Secondly, even if something feels exciting to us, it does not automatically make it so to our children. Writing may have been our favorite thing in school, but our child may enjoy a different subject area. Finally, no matter how good we feel about our child’s efforts, what matters most is how he himself feels about it.
If the child sees the activity as rewarding in some sense, it is more likely that this activity will be pursued in the future. Even more importantly, it is that much more likely to be sought out independently without us needing to remind the child to do it.
Since we are talking about the children developing their sense of motivation independent of adult direction, we also need to remember that this kind of intrinsic motivation takes time to develop. It has a lot to do with the child’s age, the ability to persevere through challenges, and to wait for good outcomes because the reward may not always be immediate. This is known as the ability to delay gratification, so famously studied at Stanford University in the marshmallow test. So, to recap, children will do more of what they enjoy doing and feel good about.
When this simple motivation rule is applied to specific scenarios, we can see where it may hinder the child’s ability to persist in an activity, let alone find it interesting.
For example, let’s look at a child with dyslexia who is trying to read a book. If the text is way too hard and the intervention has not been applied effectively, she is more likely to give up right away. On the other hand, if a child with dyslexia is receiving intervention and is reading supported text appropriate for her reading level, she will persist through the challenging words. In addition to successfully overcoming obstacles at a single word level, she understands the overall sentence. It makes reading a meaningful and a rewarding activity. This child will continue to put in effort the next time she comes across a word she finds difficult.
What happens in the case of a child who can read without difficulty? Will he feel as great about reading a book? Will he be as excited about understanding each word and each sentence? Contrary to the previous examples, he may not enjoy reading unless it is a funny story or a topic of high interest. While this child reads with fluency, he may be bored by the book and will toss it aside.
Success is in the eye of the beholder.
As we saw in our third example, not all success leads to feeling good. This is because what is considered successful in one scenario is not applicable to another. Being rewarded with an understanding of what she is reading feels great to someone who generally struggles to read. On the other hand, for someone who reads easily, only a book that keeps his interest will bring the appropriate sense of satisfaction. Ultimately, success means reaching the goal of the activity. Whereas for the beginning reader it is to be able to read and understand every word in a sentence, for a fluent reader it is to be captivated by the story. While we keep in mind that goals may be different in each particular scenario, let us look at some of the strategies we can use to help our children stay motivated.
This step will take observational skills and will require you to be a detective in order to find whether there are critical barriers that prevent the child from starting an activity. Look closely at what the child is struggling with and why.
Does the child know where to start? Many children may struggle simply because they do not know how to begin. Take a look together and find an appropriate starting point. Sometimes it is reading directions together or gathering the necessary materials. Is the activity too big or too long? Children are developing their ability to organize and manage tasks well into the late teens, and they may not be able to chunk a bigger task into manageable steps. You can help by breaking the task down and creating a sequence of steps or a checklist for them to follow.
Does the child have the necessary skills to get started? If math facts are required in order to solve a math problem and the child has not learned them, an accommodation in a form of a calculator may be needed. Learning math facts eventually is a good idea, but for now it presents a barrier that needs to be removed. Finally, is the child ready? Other things, like being hungry or not feeling comfortable, may also get in the way of focusing and starting.
There may be as many barriers as there are children and the activities they face. Thinking critically through each situation and what is getting in the way, will point towards a solution.
Sometimes, it may not be clear right away what is preventing the child from getting started. In this case, it is always helpful to start the activity together and stay with the child while you continue to observe. Depending on the age of the child, inviting them into this conversation may be really helpful. Not only this will make them feel supported, but it will also help them develop their own ability to reflect on what they are doing and look for ways to improve the process.
Working together may take different forms, from side-by-side (working through each part of the task together) to just being in the same room (while each person is engaged in their own activity). For example, you may be reading a book together and working through each word. Or, you may read your own book while your child reads another. All will depend on the kind of support you child needs.
Know when to step back. Remember that the child is looking for a sense of accomplishment. Whenever he can do something independently, make sure to let that happen. The feeling “I did it!” and “I did it all by myself!” is what keeps the child motivated going forward.
This is the best part of getting motivated! When the children own the success as their own accomplishment, they feel so proud and energized that they are willing to put in even more effort next time. Such response is directly tied to a powerful release of dopamine in the brain. It makes the children feel confident and excited going forward. The more confidently they approach the next step, the more likely they are to do well, which further reinforces the feeling of accomplishment. This self-reinforcing cycle is what neuroscientist Ian Robertson refers to when he says that success shapes us more powerfully than our genetic make up.
As parents, we have expectations of our children, some of which we may not be aware of. This may not be the most evident hindrance on the child’s ability to get started and to stay motivated. It is, nonetheless, very powerful. Whether we speak to the child of our expectations directly or not, they are communicated in many non-verbal ways. They are picked up by the child and processed either as supportive or as demotivating signals.
Take a minute to reflect… What expectations do you hold in regards to a task you are going to ask your child to do? Is it that it is done a certain way? Is it that it is done perfectly, or quickly, or in one sitting? If the child is already struggling with motivation, these signals will deflate him and fill him with dread. Perhaps, we don’t think that he can do it and, therefore, resort to no expectations for him at all. We may feel that we are being supportive by thinking this way. However, this inadvertently communicates that we expect our child to fail. That is not the message we want to send.
A resilient child is a motivated child.
So what kind of expectations do make sense? Any expectation that focuses on the effort — rather than on the end-result — is most helpful. If the child does not do as well, but has tried her best, your expectation is met and she feels supported in the process. This parental recognition of the hard work will build the child’s resiliency in the face of future failures. As it happens in life, most things require multiple attempts and our goal is to get better with each one. We build resiliency through understanding and accepting that effort should be the focus of approval and praise, not perfection.
This is a topic we will return to again and again. There are many more ways to support our children and help them develop intrinsic motivation. Stay tuned for my future thoughts on the matter! In the meantime, please feel free to share this with those who may find it helpful. Have questions or comments? Find me on Twitter or contact via email.