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By Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. , Robert Brooks, Ph.D.
There are many ways to strengthen children's inborn motivation and optimism. These techniques are based on our own work in the area of resilience and motivation as well as the research of others. We are especially impressed with the research of psychologist Edward Deci at the University of Rochester. Instead of wondering, "How can people motivate others?" Deci asks, "How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?" This is an important distinction as it shifts the focus away from motivation based on external rewards and punishments to intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on what Deci labels "authenticity and responsibility" and a feeling of having choice). Deci proposes that people's intrinsic motivation thrives in environments that meet their most significant needs. He highlights three such needs:
It's important for parents, educators and other professionals to keep these needs in mind and to establish conditions that will nurture motivation and hope in the children they care about.
Let's explore these core needs a little further:
Children and adolescents will feel increasingly self-motivated in environments in which they feel welcome and sense that adults care about them. This need is very important in schools, reflected in the oft-quoted statement, "Students don't care what you know until they first know you care."
At home, we recommend parents regularly set aside special time alone with each of their children. Devote that time exclusively to your child and tune out any distractions or interruptions. When your child feels she has your attention and unconditional love, she's more likely to be cooperative and feel motivated.
At the core of Deci's theory of motivation are the concepts of ownership and self-determination. If our goal is to create environments in which children are self-motivated, then we must make certain they know their voices are heard and respected, and that they have some control over what transpires in their lives. If youngsters are constantly told what to do and feel that adults are dictating their lives, they're less likely to be enthused or motivated to engage in particular tasks. If anything, their main motivation may be to avoid or oppose the desires of others; a power struggle, uncooperative behavior and anger are likely to follow.
Intrinsic motivation is nurtured when adults seek and respect the input of children and teens. We should also provide opportunities for children to strengthen their problem-solving and decision-making skills. For instance, a group of students were asked to do research on various charities. Based on their research, they decided which charity to support and how to go about raising money. These activities enhanced their self-esteem and determination, and nurtured an attitude of compassion toward others.
Even offering children seemingly small choices can enhance their self-motivation. In one school we visited, teachers gave students a choice about which homework problems to do. For instance, if there were eight math problems on a page, they told the students, "It's your choice. You have to consider all eight problems, but do the six that you think will help you to learn best." The teachers reported receiving more homework of higher quality when they allowed students some degree of choice.
The feelings of choice and ownership are closely associated with the research of Dr. Carol Dweck. In her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck advocates, "You have to teach students that they are in charge of their intellectual growth" while her colleague Lisa Blackwell emphasizes, "The message is that everything is within the kids' control, that their intelligence is malleable." However, in teaching children that learning is within their control, we must provide them with learning strategies that play to their strengths and address their weaknesses. We should also explain that if one strategy isn't effective, there are other strategies to try.
You can nurture your child's self-determination and motivation by encouraging her to use problem-solving skills. Try to refrain from constantly telling her what to do but rather encourage her to consider possible solutions. One question many parents ask regarding motivation is why a child will complete her homework but not turn it in at school. For some children, this has nothing to do with motivation but rather reflects their disorganization and inattention (problems which can be addressed). However, any child who struggles in school probably dreads having to do additional schoolwork at home. For this child, the goal of doing homework is to earn freedom, i.e., her parents will allow her playtime and privileges only after she completes her homework. Once she finishes her homework and earns her freedom, turning in her homework the next day is the last thing on her mind. You and her teacher(s) may want to engage your child in a problem-solving session to come up with a system that motivates her to turn in the homework she completes - perhaps by offering an external reward and, as importantly, helping her realize the satisfaction she will get from turning in her work.
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