From the time a child is born, he is instinctively motivated to have his needs met. He is naturally curious, wants to feel capable, and do things out of free will. The feeling of being capable is constantly being built and reinforced by doing things repeatedly until the child feels he has mastered it. For example, he will go up and down the stairs endlessly till he masters climbing the steps. His curiosity helps him understand his world and how he must adapt to it, learn what must be done, how to do it, and what helps him get ahead. And, he wants to do those things by choice, by himself, in his own way. Remember that he is learning everything with utmost interest. Thus, a child’s motivational patterns are established in early childhood and they impact his learning in later years.
Unfortunately, many rigid early school systems destroy this inner motivation, by imposing external rewards for learning. Rather, they should understand how intrinsic motivation works, and make efforts to encourage it in their students.
The Science of Motivation by Kevan Lee, published on blog.idonethis.com (2017), speaks of the release of the chemical Dopamine in the brain when we have rewarding experiences, such as when we expect something important to happen, hope for improvement, progress or achievement. This is when an individual begins to feel motivated. Motivation is the drive that puts us into the action mode when we want to complete a task, achieve something or get better at something, or overcome obstacles and seek success.
The level of motivation determines the quality of learning, engagement and achievement. It can change, depending upon how interesting the subject is for the child.
Types of motivation
Our choice of type of motivation – intrinsic (self-motivation) or extrinsic (external) – depends on several reasons like why we try, or why we want to learn and achieve.
Intrinsic motivation: It is crucial for school learning. It consists of two components – feeling capable and having a control over the environment (understanding how it works and how to find a way through it). A child derives pleasure from engaging in activities that she finds interesting, engaging and satisfying. As a result, she feels encouraged to learn, take initiative, stick to a task and complete it. A higher level of inner motivation makes her seek challenging tasks, as she doesn’t enjoy doing easy tasks as much. As she grows older, her inner motivation emanates from the positive thought, “I want to, because it’s important to ME.” Excessive focus on good grades, and learning without understanding its purpose and meaning will diminish her inner motivation and interest, and the will to learn independently.
Extrinsic motivation: It makes a child seek the approval of parents, teachers and peers. It creates fears of negative consequences and diminishes genuine interest in learning. It occurs when the child is pressured to get exceptional grades or ranks, or pursue opportunities and privileges. It takes the fun and enjoyment out of the experience, and is fuelled by a limiting negative thought – “I HAVE to please someone, avoid punishment or get a reward.”
However, a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation often works best. For example, a child can feel motivated when he is interested in a subject or activity, and will also consider seeking approval from his teacher or peers, as an incentive. Or, he may enjoy working independently but will seek help when required. Either way, the child learns important life skills such as focus and attention, problem-solving, self-management, and planning and organising.
Ways to encourage your child to self-motivate
- Have realistic expectations by keeping in mind your child’s personality and temperament. Help him become the best version of himself, and not what you want him to be or become. Hold him to high standards, love him for who he is, and appreciate what he can do.
- Build confidence by giving your child opportunities to feel good about herself, especially by feeling capable. Whenever your child’s curiosity is aroused or she attempts to try something new or makes a choice, ensure that the way you respond makes her feel happy, inspires awe and wonder, and interest and excitement. Notice how these rich experiences make her feel, “I can,” “It made me happy,” and “I can choose”. All these begin to make her feel good about herself.
- Build on character strengths such as hard work, not giving up easily, picking himself up when there is a setback, and self-control. Help him in his search to find what he can be good at and encourage him wholeheartedly. Allow him to try his hand at various things to help him find what is of interest to him.
- Help set goals to improve performance, focus and effort, and master these habits. Small goals work best as they can gradually push your child to look for and enjoy challenges. At the same time, teach your child that progress is also the result of effort, perseverance, determination, grit and diligence.
- Teach the importance of practice, one step at a time. Give positive and constructive feedback and teach your child how to self-assess. It would make him more responsible, find the gaps and work towards gradual and steady improvement. It would also turn learning into an enjoyable experience.
- Appreciate small accomplishments of your child by sharing them with individuals who are important to the child. These secure relationships will give your child the courage to explore and learn more about his world, and increase his understanding of how to function in his environment. Be sincere in your praise.
- Develop a growth mindset by teaching yourself and your child that intelligence is not a fixed trait and that progress can be achieved with effort and practice, and that valuable learning can happen from failures or setbacks. It’s all about working diligently to achieve goals and experience success.
- Encourage suitable activities by allowing your child to get involved in tasks where she is more likely to experience success. This will, in turn, boost her level of self-motivation. Support her when she comes to you with doubts or is exploring ideas to help her make better choices.
- Go to the root of problems by helping your child list out the problems, and asking questions to find out where and when these issues arise, how they happen, and who or what causes them. This exercise enables the child to think of new areas of possibilities and solutions.
- Be patient, as children are a work in progress, and this process cannot be fast-forwarded. Inevitable setbacks and disappointments are great moments to teach your child and learn for yourself.
Ways parents can be a model of self-motivation
- Let your own efforts be visible to your child.
- Complete the tasks you take up.
- Fulfil your obligations.
- Show them how you enjoy learning, and share your stories with them.
- Don’t wait to be pushed against the wall before you take on responsibility.
- Demonstrate how you don’t give up till you have completed a task, no matter how tough.
- Appreciate when other family members work hard at something.
Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.
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