One of the biggest challenges facing both parents and teachers is to help children stay motivated so that they can keep focus, persevere when they are struggling, move forward, and finish what they have begun.
The most well-documented theory of motivation is that of internal and external motivation, which underlines the importance of internal motivation for success. Internal, or intrinsic, motivation helps us to carry out an activity for the sake of the activity itself, because we enjoy it, while external, or extrinsic, motivation helps us to carry out an activity because we gain from doing it or because it helps us avoid an unpleasant consequence of not doing it. Extrinsic motivation manifests itself in several forms, the most desirable being the integrated extrinsic motivation, as this is closest to intrinsic motivation.
Children are mostly internally motivated in their early years, because their lives are filled with curiosity, wonder, novelty, exploration.
They naturally turn to what they enjoy. If they get bored of an activity, they give it up and head to another game, puzzle or start imagining. Even during primary school, what predominates is internal motivation, but it decreases as the children progress towards secondary and high school, which is understandable when we remember that’s when competition arises, when assessments, exams and certain subjects are most emphasised.
Although initially the researchers looked at the importance of internal motivation over external, or assumed that the two are mutually exclusive (if an individual is strongly internally motivated, then they have low external motivation, and vice versa), the research findings showed that each of us is motivated both internally and externally in different aspects of life.
Moreover, the absence of extrinsic motivation is more critical than the presence of intrinsic motivation in establishing the relationship between motivation and achievement.
Experts believe that only by dealing with the multidimensional nature of motivational forces will we be able to help our academically-unmotivated children. Establishing a dichotomy of intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation can be unnecessarily simplistic. Both types of motivation may be necessary to maintain motivation over time.
Choices based only on immediate pleasure, on what satisfies curiosity, without paying attention to external constraints or positive results, can substantially reduce a child’s future opportunities. Adapting to the external context is an important factor in achieving success and finding balance. A child cannot take another child’s toy just because they want to, but will have to take into account the needs and rights of the other. On the other hand, focusing exclusively on extrinsic constraints and incentives can decrease the natural interest and pleasure that arise from the activity itself.
Bring relevance to the table
Children make choices based on what they enjoy, what interests them. A child will be much more willing to read about animals if they have a natural liking for them—more so than about countries and capitals, which they might, for instance, feel they cannot remember for too long. For their optional reading they can choose books from their favourite field. For compulsory reading it is useful to arouse their curiosity. “How do you think Paris, the capital city of France, got its name?” “How do you think people travelled 100 years ago?” “Do you think you would have liked to live in the Middle Ages?” “How would you write this story?” We maintain the child’s curiosity whenever we find time for his questions.
Children make choices based on what they enjoy, what interests them.
Sometimes, explaining why it is important to do something, we can increase the child’s motivation to do that thing. Especially if the explanation refers to his values: “Sweets are harmful to your body” or “When you hit your brother you prove that you do not respect him.”
When it comes to external motivation, it is preferable to link a desirable behaviour to one of the child’s values or pleasures: “I know you don’t like learning English, but when we go to England, it will be very easy for you to buy that game you want.” “I know it takes a lot of effort to focus on your calligraphy writing skills and I want to help you somehow. How about if you received 5 Euros for each line you write beautifully? You will be able to pay for your ski camp this way.”
To be autonomous means to have the right to initiate your own activities, your own actions. Autonomy is based on the freedom of choice of each individual, regardless of age. Children need to be able to make their own decisions even when their parents do not fully agree with them, even when their decisions are not exactly good. It is a God-given right to have a choice. Just like falling is part of the process of learning to walk, wrong decisions play a role in teaching us how to make good decisions.
Whatever the context, a child’s freedom of choice can only be manifested in a safe and structured environment, with concrete options, especially when it comes to young children.
For instance, to pre-empt a child’s refusal to brush his teeth in the evening, provide him with a choice beforehand—not whether to brush his teeth or not, but whether to use the red or green toothbrush, electric or manual, or whether to brush his teeth before changing into his pyjamas or after. Then we act upon their decision. Their decision-making power will cover an area that will consider the child’s ability to make certain decisions, depending on the level of their development. It is the parent who gets to decide whether or not they should go to kindergarten, but the child can be offered the choice of what to wear, what backpack to take, or even what kindergarten to go to. We gave our sons this opportunity to choose their school: the local Art College (5 minutes from home) or a Christian school in the neighbouring city, and their decision to study in a Christian school proved to be a good one, even if it would have been more convenient for us all if they chose otherwise.
Sometimes fear or shame can be so strong that it makes us choose contrary to what we would like. That’s why teaching children to manage their emotions, even in times of crisis, is a great gift we can give them.
Create a positive environment
Children need the constant attention and care of teachers and parents. They need to be treated with respect and be shown availability. The warmth and receptivity of adults to their needs gives them security to open up and ask for help and gives them energy to move on. Empathy can tear down mountains of stubbornness.
Children do not need to feel constrained (through punishments or rewards), but rather understood, and this happens if we actively listen to them.
If they don’t want to do their homework as soon as they come home from school, it would be more constructive to try to understand what they don’t like and under what conditions they would be better off doing it. Maybe they are too tired, maybe homework is a stress factor and they would first like to relax for a short while. Maybe they would enjoy doing their homework more if they were able to do it in the backyard or while listening to classical music or in the kitchen. A mother was shocked to learn that the reason her son wanted to sleep in his parents’ bed almost every night was not the whim of a small child, but the fear of being left alone at home the next morning. Unfortunately, she only discovered this after a year of steady refusal of his request.
Children need to negotiate, to express their point of view, to be heard and considered. Negotiation does not mean compromise (“I give you something, you give me something”), but the expression of interests, points of view, discussing options and choosing the optimal solutions for both parties.
Children need to negotiate, to express their point of view, to be heard and considered.
During a game, when our two boys were arguing because one of them wanted to speak English, the other one Romanian (he doesn’t speak English very well), I suggested they negotiate their issue. So they both expressed their point of view, their motivation, came up with solutions (possible and impossible) and came to the conclusion that one can speak English and the other can answer in Romanian. They kept playing like that for a few hours. It would have been much easier to intervene and decide for them, but that was not my game and probably theirs would have ended just as quickly as the verdict of my decision.
Speak their language
Many parents complain that their children don’t listen. But perhaps just as many parents do not speak so as to reach their children’s hearts. The children’s personality type often differs from the personality of the parent, as well as their love language. The child remains motivated when they’re connected to themselves, to their own way of obtaining, understanding and integrating information. Personality type also influences their learning style, so a lesson adapted to their learning style offers high efficiency in maintaining a high level of academic motivation. For some children, it takes more than a few minutes to connect with the adult with them in order to perform a certain task. For others all it takes is a little physical movement to do the exact same task.
Develop their sense of self-worth
At the opposite end from the integrated extrinsic motivation is the motivation based only on external factors (rewards, punishments), which unfortunately has a major negative impact on personal value due to the fact that it is more a kind of training. If a child’s toy is taken away from them every time they throw it on the floor, over time that child is going to develop a sense of them not being worthy of beautiful toys. But if they’re given an explanation such as: “I need to put the toy high up on the shelf, because if you throw it, it will break and you will not have anything to play with”, the child will learn to judge from cause to effect, feeling loved and accepted even if their behaviour is stopped.
Helping children define their own goals helps them develop a sense of self-worth.
What children need in order to develop a healthy sense of self-worth, is feedback instead of praise. It is much more constructive when we say: “You put the puzzle together very well! You made a puzzle-puppy!”, Instead of a simple “Good job!” or “Well done!” We can even go a little further and, instead of, “Oh, what a beautiful puppy you’ve made from the puzzle”, we could ask her: “Do you like the puppy? What do you think, was it hard? How did you feel? Do you want to try another puzzle?”
Helping children define their own goals helps them develop a sense of self-worth. Objectives such as achievements or a high standard must be chosen carefully and to the best of their ability, so that while they are not boring, they are not too difficult to achieve, either. Objectives such as the development of skills are preferable, because they prevent children from defining themselves in terms of achievements or high demands. A goal chart, placed within easy sight, will help them keep their goals alive, even in moments of intense effort or discouragement.
When a child struggles with a problem, changing perspective by giving them easy challenges will help them overcome the difficult time: “How do you think you can put the puzzle pieces together so that they fit?” “What do you think is the shortest route to granny’s house?” “Do you think you can finish your homework in 30 minutes?” “Today you need more energy for sports class. I know cereal will help. Want some?” “Why do you think your classmates bullied you today? What could you do to stop it from happening again?”
The motivation of our children is theirs, not ours. We can’t control it, but we can influence it. We can provide a model of good practice by living authentically and allowing them to be authentic. Let them be themselves, not mere copies of ourselves.