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October 5, 2009
Times Observer

What is motivation? What makes us do the things we do? Motivation is a driving force that directs behavior. It can be from outside us; which we call extrinsic motivation. Or, it can be from within us, called intrinsic motivation. It is something a baby shows us when she cries because she is hungry. She is motivated to be fed, so she demonstrates behavior, in this case crying, to get the food she needs. It is something we see in our young children when they are motivated to play a certain game or play with a certain toy. And, it is a very important factor in learning. We want our children to be motivated to learn.

When a young child makes a choice in what he wants to eat, or what he wants to wear, he is demonstrating intrinsic motivation. The choice of what he eats or wears makes him happy inside. We can also see this when a child plays with a toy that they really enjoy. The child is intrinsically motivated to play with that particular toy.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of our children. We can see it when a child does something to please us. In extrinsic motivation, the reward comes from an outside source, like a parent, teacher, or friend.

While both types of motivation are important, the optimum type of motivation for learning is intrinsic. We want our children to love learning for the joy it brings them. We want them to marvel at the look of a leaf, or the sight of a caterpillar crawling up a branch. But many of children lack the basic underlying behavioral traits that are essential to motivation.

Let’s look at each of these traits. First, we want children to be independent. We do not want them to be dependent on us when they can do something themselves. The ability to do things by oneself without us constantly telling them what to do is a critical step to intrinsic motivation because it is a precursor to self sufficiency leading to intrinsic motivation If a child is dependent on adults and seeks our constant approval, they do not become independent learners. We need to teach our children that they can do things by themselves and that doing things independently is motivating. Secondly, children need to display the behavioral trait of persistence. They need to stick with something to solve it themselves rather than constantly asking us to solve it for them. This helps them to develop a sense of self satisfaction or intrinsic motivation to try the next time something is problematic. This can be as simple as learning to put on one’s own sock or lift the spoon to feed oneself. If we provide the solution, the child does not have the opportunity to be persistent in the task.

Another behavioral trait is attaining success when challenged. If a child is successful, they are more apt to try the next time. If they are unsuccessful or we jump in, they are more apt to give up or let us supply the answer.

The final trait is the child’s emotion. Children who are more positive about themselves are more likely to continue to try at something, and therefore develop a sense of intrinsic motivation. Children who are not positive about themselves might become bored more easily and have a flatter affect when engaging in something new.

What can we, as parents, do to enhance motivation? The National Association of School Psychologists lists several strategies you can try.

Provide an environment (through age appropriate toys, activities, etc.) that allows children to freely explore and to see the effect of their actions (i.e., toys that have visible or tangible changes when moved).

Allow children ample time when working to allow for persistence. When children are deeply involved with an activity, make sure that they can finish without interruption. Resist the natural urge to "help," and let the child know if, for example, we have to go to the grocery store in a few minutes.

Respond to children's needs in a consistent, predictable manner, but allow them to be as independent as possible. This does NOT mean ceding all control to your child. All children need clearly defined limits. Playtime, however, need not be structured and organized. Let your kid be a kid!

Provide many opportunities for children and adults to explore together and interact directly. It is important for both children and adults to be working together on an activity. This lets you observe, model, and encourage your child.

Provide situations that give children an acceptable challenge.  Activities that are slightly difficult for the child will be more motivating and provide for stronger feelings of success when accomplished. This may take some trial and error at first.

Give children opportunities to evaluate their own accomplishments. Rather than stating that you think they have done a good job, ask them what they think of their work. You'll never go wrong by asking the question, "What do YOU think?"

Do not use excessive rewards. They tend to undermine children's ability to value themselves. Praise and rewards should be based upon children's effort and persistence, rather than on the actual accomplishment.

So, give these things a try and help your child develop the intrinsic motivation for learning that will last a lifetime.


Mary Rockey, Ph.D., BCBA is the Director of Pupil Service at Randolph Central School.

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