Optimism and motivation: Keys to your child's success
Two psychologists describe the inborn optimism and motivation that drive children to learn and develop - and how you can nurture those traits.
By Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. , Robert Brooks, Ph.D.
Have you ever wondered how:
- An 18-month-old knows if he keeps making noises eventually you will understand what he's communicating?
- A 3-year-old knows if she keeps scribbling someday people will recognize what she' s making?
- A 4-year-old knows if he keeps looking at the words on the page one day he'll be able to read?
These behaviors can be best explained by the concept of instinctual optimism, one of the two early, critical keys for successful learning. A child doesn't have to learn by experience alone because natural instinct also guides her. With her inborn optimism, she remains confident that, no matter what challenges she faces, with perseverance she will ultimately succeed. Instinctual optimism is a quality that we believe is genetically driven in our species and is the engine that drives children's daily quest to understand and master the world around them. All children come into the world with instinctual optimism, some to a much greater extent than others, depending on their temperament.
Children's curiosity, driven by their instinctual optimism, is all the reward or reinforcement they need to engage in new activities. This internal drive is known as intrinsic motivation, the second critical key to academic success. Young children engage in activities not because they receive external motivators, but because they simply enjoy the activities.
Supporting Students' Motivation and Optimism at School
Most children are eager to go to school. For them, school is just another developmental challenge that they are instinctually optimistic they will master and intrinsically motivated to engage in. However, students soon find they're judged and evaluated in a competitive atmosphere, and no matter how well they perform they'll always be reminded there is room for improvement. Our education system is often driven by the promise of a reward, the threat of a punishment or the challenge of competition. These external motivators may be effective and well- intended, but they clearly work against the continued development of a child's intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation - participating at school for the sheer pleasure of learning - is soon eclipsed by the promise of external rewards, and a child's natural enthusiasm for learning may be dampened.
When children have learning, emotional, behavioral, social, academic or other developmental problems, they often struggle in school. Yet, even children facing challenges are born with instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation. Unfortunately, our education system has determined that students who struggle need a greater degree of external motivation to stay engaged in academic tasks. Yet it is exactly these students whose intrinsic motivation must be nurtured and reinforced. We're not suggesting that grades, rewards, punishments, or competition should be banished from our educational system, but rather that we must strike a balance between the use of external rewards and the reinforcement of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation drives self-reinforcement, which we believe is the foundation of academic success, even more important than intellect, ability and opportunity.
When any child struggles with instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation, we must guide and provide her with experiences that will further develop those qualities. It's understandable that such a child will be prone to see her mistakes as failures, to avoid academic challenges, ultimately developing a helpless or hopeless approach to school. It's reasonable to think that offering her an external payoff will motivate her to engage in a difficult task, yet doing so may well dampen her natural motivation.