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.


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