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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.

Research and Real-Life Strategies to Help Kids

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:

  • To belong and feel connected
  • To feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination
  • To feel competent

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:

To belong and feel connected

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.

To feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination

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.

To feel competent

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.

Helping Children Succeed in School

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.

Helping Children Succeed in Their Areas of Interest

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.

Providing Your Child With Opportunities to Help Others

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:

  • Older students with learning problems reading to younger children
  • A hyperactive child being asked to serve as "attendance monitor," walking the teacher's list to the school office (and burning off excess energy at the same time)
  • Cooperative learning in which students of varying abilities work together as a team, each bringing unique strengths to a project.

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.

Nurturing Your Child's Motivation and Optimism Over Time

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.

Selected References

  1. Brooks, R. & Goldstein, S. (2001). Raising Resilient Children. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. New York: Bantam Books.
  3. Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Random House.
  4. Goldstein, S. & Brooks, R. (2007). Understanding and Managing Children's Classroom Behavior: Creating Sustainable, Resilient Classrooms. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Lavoie, R. (2007). The Motivation Breakthrough. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  6. Levine, M.D. (2003). The Myth of Laziness. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  7. Margolis, H. & McCabe, P. (2006). Improving Self-Efficacy and Motivation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 218-227.
  8. Seligman, M., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., & Gillham, J. (1995). The Optimistic Child. New York: Houghton Mifflin.


Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah, a Research Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and Director of the Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Attention Disorders, author, co-author or editor of 26 books and dozens of book chapters and peer reviewed research articles.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from readers

"HI! I appreciate your attempt to motivate children and to enable them to be active learners rather than passive, perhaps uninterested learners. My grandchild and my daughter live with us. Computers, when my daughter was young, were not what they are today. I thank the wisdom of a friend who insisted 32 years ago our family had to have computer, and my wisdom to give into her expertise, and to purchase a computer that I couldn't see as being that important. My daughter has ADD and other features that are associated with ADD, as do I. Without the computer she would not have been graduating with honors, and receiving a Masters degree that will give her dual certification to teach in pre-K to grade 3, as well as teach children with special needs. She has made it a point to volunteer, student teach and find a position in an inner city school. She is 'giving back', in appreciation. She had to struggled and I had to fight for her to have the education she needed, wanted and deserved. I, was considered 'lazy' and not living up to my potential' when I was a child, because of what is now called ADD. There were no computers to enable me, nor the the support or understanding of the Educational community. They found a diagnosis for a different learning style, so at least my daughter wasn't seen as 'lazy' 'not living up to her potential', but it is meaningless to have a diagnosis without a way to teach. The computer was a life saver! , and I know some people in Educational world would agree with me. My daughter has taken the computer skills she has to teach my grandchild. We do not yet know if she has ADD, but suspect she does. She is now 5, and in Pre-K. She learned how to spell her name and to use the letters she saw to then write them herself. This is only a small part of how my daughter has used the computer to challenge her and to interest her, as well as make her curious. My grandchild knows more about animals than most adults do (in fact she has taught me about animals I didn't know existed). My daughter has used the computer to bring to life, so much information, and my granddaughter has absorbed everything put before her. My granddaughter is challenged by all the information, my daughter exposes her to. Information, that would not have been at my daughter's finger tips without the computer. In my day, one went to the out of date Encyclopedia to answer questions put before parents who didn't know the answer. Today, the computer can lead parents to info! rmation that is up to date and goes way beyond the initial question. In fact, my husband, a college professor, took my granddaughter to 3 of his classes this week. My granddaughter raised her hand to respond to material he presented in his Theories of Personality, Psych 101, and Abnormal Psych. classes. She followed the information enough to be able to give appropriate examples with regard to what he was teaching, many of his students were amazed. Her attention span, the challenge, and ability to grasp information, is a result of her use of a computer. Needless to say it has also had a great impact upon her self esteem. Lets not power down, let's start learning how to use the computer to teach, help children to find their own questions, and what they want to know more about. Let's make a commitment to providing more interesting and challenging ways for kids to play on the computer, but also learn. Let's make learning as exciting as video games, and challenge children t! o be active and interactive learners using the computer. Shou! ld they have time to also be passive computer users, yes, we all need to play as well as learn, but if it were as interesting to learn than perhaps they would have an opportunity to learn how to balance the world between work and play that would follow them throughout their lives. At one time where in the world is Aldo (I think that was the name of the person in this game) taught children geography in a very hands on way, while they played. What happen to those inventive games. I believe it was easier to give into video games, than it was for those who provide internet material for children, than to work on providing games that were a learning experience. In other words, the easy way out was taken rather than the more challenging educational programs I would like to see as much energy go into providing a challenging, interactive educational internet, that teaches children, holds their attention, and makes them curious. Let's not power down but rather challenge parents, teachers, and other educators, even students to use this powerful tool in an appropriate way. Everything in our society has been so watered down that we expect very little and so we get very little. We are annoyed when young people can't function behind a deli counter to provide the sandwich asked for and add to the bag utensils and condiments. It is amazing how a little thing, that perhaps is not so little when you realize that you don't have the needed napkin, can be taught easily as apart of other learning on a computer. I wish I had the money to dangle before those who are in the know as well as those who don't even know what they are capable of, to be creative, to provide more meaningful computer learning experiences, with a strong belief that cash incentives would no longer be needed, for the challenge itself might be the incentive itself to create. I challenge America not to tune down but to tune on and use what is an incredible gift to our children, a computer. I challenge America to take this time to be creative and challenging, and show what we can do with a computer, it is too powerful a resource to turn our backs on!"
"Finally, two people who understand intrinsic motivation. I just retired as a school supt, but think of myself as a behaviorist now. I just published a comprehensive book of 423 pages totally devoted to ONLY intrinsic motivation using The Triad that came to me through prayer only 11 hours after I asked God for help. The Triad is a skills-based method parents can learn and teach to their children to increase their intrinsic motivation that translates to performance improvement in any purposeful activity, task, job, or relationship. The book is Purposeful Intent: Motivating Your Mind From Within and available on Amazon. It will be in bookstores soon, as it was only released March 5th. Buy a copy and see what you think. My Ph.D. is in Perceptual-Motor Learning and Sport Psychology. I heavily researched this topic and found that all the other authors, speakers, etc. were only telling you what but not how to increase your motivation. I fell into the same trap and had the book half written when my prayer was answered and I changed the approach. Now I am just the messenger. The Triad skills are interrelated such that when you start to master the strategies and cues of one skill they act like heated up molecules that bump into the other two skills. The other skills get agitated, wake up, and start processing more information - and this process goes on for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE - like riding a bicycle, you never forget how to apply those skills in combination. The Triad: Increase Awareness, Enhance Self Evaluation, and Connect Reward With Reinforcement. If possible, I would like to write an article for you if you think this information is worthy for your parents and teachers. Just tell me the format and how many words to use, and the audience. I have a website that is being worked on, but still helpful: (my last name is spelled with an sen ending. Hope to hear from you, and really glad to see a good website devoted to the early learner. PreK-3 was my primary focus in my K-12 dist. to get kids off to a good start. Problem is that teachers are not taught how to use intrinsic motivation skills in their degree or professional development programs. In Illinois I have written a full day Administrator Academy program to try to make a difference in this area. My blog is: The Intrinsic Motivation Performance Improvement Guru. Pete Andersen, Ph.D."
"There is a fundamental flaw in the arguments of your experts: any appeal to the 'insticts' of man must necessarily be based on the premise that man does not think. In fact, man is self-made being who thinks, which creates his premises and his propensities. Born tabula rasa--which means as a blank tablet--it is the premises he accepts that determine his optimism and motivation as a child."
"This was a wonderful article! This is something I have always felt about motivating kids to learn but never had the science to back it up! This model could also be used to motivate adults!"