Applied Psychology

How to motivate kids to be the best they can be

Jun 09, 2020 | By Signpost
How to motivate kids to be the best they can be

How to motivate kids without relying on a reward system, which proves ineffective in the long-term? The key is to inspire an intrinsic desire to learn.

Key takeaways:

  • Inspiring intrinsic motivation to learn in children has proven more effective than using a rewards or punishment system.
  • Intrinsic motivation attempts to make the learning process itself, rather than rewards or outcomes, the focus of the child’s interest and energy.
  • Parents can encourage intrinsic motivation by allowing children to explore their own interests, and pointing out to them how they can link those interests to greater life goals.

Children are naturally curious, and in many ways, are educating themselves right from the moment they come into this world. But parents face the question of how to motivate kids in a way that directs their focus, and prepares them for the ever-changing world ahead.

How to motivate kids: Intrinsic motivation versus reward system

The methods parents use generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Punishment system: ie. “If you don’t do your homework, you’re going to be in trouble” or “I’m going to take away your video games if you don’t get a good result for your exam”. This approach is generally considered to be an abject failure, serving only to breed resentment rather than encourage a desire to learn. As Kate Roberts Ph.D. writes on Psychology Today: “Attempting to strong arm a child to do what’s expected sets up a series of power struggles that will interfere with the parent-child connection and will not likely result in the desired outcome.”
  • Reward system: On the opposite of the extreme is constantly rewarding children for doing well, whether it be in the form of sweets, toys or occasionally money. This can work in the short-term, but long-term does not prepare them adequately for the world ahead. Eventually they will encounter a world that does not give them chocolates for doing well at a test.
  • Encouraging intrinsic motivation: Showing an interest in the child’s work, encouraging them to link it in some way to their own interest, and basically cultivating a desire to learn that is removed from any requirement for rewards or fear of reprisal.

Encouraging intrinsic motivation should be the goal

Studies have been conducted to test the effectiveness of the reward system. In one such study, preschool children were presented with a fun drawing activity. One group was offered a certificate with a gold ribbon as a reward for drawing, and the other group was not offered any potential reward, or were given the reward as a surprise.

Children who expected the reward immediately lost interest in the activity after the task was complete, whereas those that didn’t continued the drawing activity long afterwards. Basically the activity itself was being perceived as enjoyable, rather than as a means to an end.

This is an example of intrinsic motivation, and it proved more effective at motivating the children to draw than the reward system.

How to motivate kids without rewards

Rewards can be useful, such as playing games with prizes, or giving children pocket money to complete certain chores.

But the ultimate aspiration is to create an intrinsic desire to learn; where the learning process itself draws a child’s interest and energy.

Of course, this is far less simple than simply resorting to rewards or punishment. Furthermore, our traditional education system, with its overemphasis on grades and exam results, is not well equipped to promote a desire to learn.

The traditional education system is outdated, the product of a world where people would train for one craft and pursue it for life. It promotes a desire to simply do what is required to get the grades required to get you into the right universities.

Hence why new forms of education are emerging to address the flaws of the traditional education system, which is not well equipped to prepare children for a world that is ever-changing and increasingly reliant on a passion for learning.

But for those parents whose children still participate in the traditional education system, they must work with what they have. Ways to encourage intrinsic motivation include:

  • Letting children lead the way: Allow them to explore their own interests. Show an interest in their interests and ask them how they plan to apply them or use them to achieve their goals.
  • Help them make the connection: between their interests and their school work. Encourage them to see the ways in which their school work can help them become better at the things they want to do.
  • Explain how certain activities: can help them reach greater goals. As an example, Kate Roberts Ph.D points out the link between geometry and strong thinking skills.
  • Encourage them in subtle ways to recognise their own strengths: For example, when you see them drawing a picture, point out that they have a good eye for images, or a vibrant imagination. This encourages them to draw a connection between their behaviour and strengths that come from within, rather than rewards that come from without, cultivating their self-esteem in the process.

Loving to learn

Whether it’s motivating kids to study, motivating them to help, or motivating kids to practice hard things, there has to be a desire on their part to challenge themselves, to engage in a learning process that they recognise for its inherent value.

As mentioned, offering them smarties every time they do something good may be easier, but it won’t encourage the desire for self-improvement that will be vital in the emerging world. If you’re interested in working with kids and learning more about child psychology, you should consider studying a course at SACAP. A range of courses are on offer, including part-time, full-time and distance learning options. For more information, enquire now.

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