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By Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. , Robert Brooks, Ph.D.
In our work, we use the metaphor "islands of competence," observing that too often we fixate on problems to be corrected in children rather than on their strengths. We believe every child has areas of strength that can be a source of pride and accomplishment. We encourage parents, teachers, and other adults to identify and build upon each child's unique strengths. This task is even more critical for students who struggle with learning and often believe they are failures with few, if any, strengths. Deci and other researchers and clinicians have emphasized the importance of reinforcing islands of competence as a catalyst for self-motivation.
When people are in environments where there is little, if any, acknowledgement of their strengths and an inordinate focus on their weaknesses, they're more likely to feel defeated and even hopeless. When these negative emotions dominate, intrinsic motivation, instinctual optimism and the desire to face new challenges will suffer.
There are many ways to help children feel more competent. In school, educators should insure that they teach students in ways in which they can learn and succeed, recognizing that all youngsters have different learning styles.
As a parent, you can help your child feel competent in his strengths by making sure he has opportunities to engage in his interests. One father told us that his son's area of competence is art. The father, whose passion is sports, isn't interested in art, while his son shows little interest in athletics. However, recognizing the importance of honoring his son's interests and talents, he signed up for an art class with his son at a local museum. After just one class he called to say they'd had a wonderful time and that his son was delighted to display his talent in front of his father.
Another strategy for fortifying islands of competence and intrinsic motivation is to provide youth with opportunities to help others. Kids who engage in contributing to the well-being of others experience satisfaction, feelings of competence and an increased motivation to pursue various activities, even those they previously found difficult. Examples we have used in the school setting include:
One of the most far-reaching approaches to assist children and adolescents to feel competent is to lessen their fear of failure. In schools, this fear can be addressed directly when teachers initiate discussion about how the fear of making mistakes generates feelings of humiliation and impacts adversely on learning. A teacher might share her own experiences of making mistakes as a student. She might then involve the class in a problem-solving activity by asking what they can do as teachers and what the students can do as a class to minimize the fear of failure.
As a parent you can help your child become more comfortable with mistakes by not reacting to your child's mistakes with judgmental or derogatory remarks. Rather, you can use mistakes as teachable, problem-solving moments, by offering a constructive comment such as, "Things didn't work out as you would have liked this time, but let's think about what you can do differently next time." When children know they won't be condemned or criticized for mistakes, they're more optimistic and motivated - and more willing to take realistic risks.
Instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation appear to be integral characteristics that drive each child forward and which can be nurtured (or undermined) throughout childhood. Nurturing these qualities in some children will require extra care, but the time and energy adults expend in this way will help strengthen children's optimism and motivation over time.
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