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Self-motivation is a vital skill, helping boost academic attainment for years to come. Here, we explore 8 ways to encourage self-motivation in your child.

We often underestimate the importance of self-motivation in childhood. We think of self-motivation as a skill that enables children to get out of bed in time to catch the school-bus and to remember to brush their teeth without persistent prodding.

A nice skill, but hardly essential.

Or is it?

Recent research suggests a strong correlation between a child's self-motivation and a child's success at school.

A 2009 study by Christiana tested 640 students and 80 teachers from 16 different secondary schools. Researchers used a self-motivation questionnaire and asked questions on academic performance. They found that self-motivation was vital to higher-academic attainment.

A further 2012 study by Kusurkar and colleagues tested 383 medical students on motivation and academic performance. The study found that the quality of motivation was

"important in determining good performance."

The reason for this may be found in the brain. Smith (2002) found that internal rewards (like that good feeling you get when you're satisfied with a job well-done) activates the amygdala, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the brainstem, and the nucleus accumbens. This is our internal reward system. The more of these areas that are activated, the quicker we learn.

What is Self-Motivation?

Self-Motivation is sometimes called "intrinsic" motivation.

It is the wish to do or explore something without the motivation of an external reward ("do your homework, and you can play your game for thirty minutes") or the threat of an external punishment ("don't do your homework, and you'll go to bed early"). It's the internal drive of motivation that drives us on, and makes us want to achieve (rather than "coasting", doing the bare minimum to avoid censure).

The Difference Between the Self-Motivated Child and the Unmotivated Child

Being motivated affects a child's whole attitude and behaviour. These changes make children try harder and do better.

Motivated children are not necessarily smarter children. They just stick-with-it longer and try their best.

Einstein did not credit his successes to intelligence, but to motivation, saying:

"It's not that I'm so smart...It's just that I stay with problems longer."

Motivated children:

  • Are more likely to choose challenging tasks, giving them the opportunity to learn
  • Do tasks without being asked
  • Concentrate more
  • Have a positive attitude to their education
  • Stick-with tasks when they get hard, and will see them though to the end
Barber (1994) concluded that 40% of secondary school students experienced a lack of motivation.

Unmotivated children

  • Choose very simple tasks they can do without challenge
  • Must be repeatedly asked to do tasks
  • Give work minimal effort
  • May have a negative attitude to their education
  • Give up tasks when they are hard, and frequently leave tasks unfinished.
So, now we know why motivation matters, let's look at how you can painlessly raise self-motivation in your children.

Step 1: Help Children Feel Competent

Don't rush to do everything for your child. Instead, allow your child the space and time (under your supervision) to do things for themselves.

Let them pick out their clothes (and don't rush to tell your two-year-old that the purple dress they picked doesn't coordinate with their stripy green tights). Let then try to fasten their own shoes (who can forget the delight in their little one's face as they fasten and unfasten their shoes repeatedly when they learn their new skill). Ask for help to prepare a meal, staggering increasingly complex tasks over months and years (washing vegetables, mixing cake-mix with a spoon, tenderising meat with a mallet, coating chicken escalope in egg and breadcrumbs, and so on).

Letting your child do things for themselves proves to your child that you think they are competent and capable. Each time they master a new skill, they experience the joy of success, and each success boosts feelings of competence. When a child feels competent, they feel motivated. They can't wait to do more things for themselves.

Step 2: Use Encouragement, not Praise

Praise is empty. Praise doesn't motivate a child, because it doesn't tell your child what they're doing right.

Rather than saying - when your child proudly presents you with their picture - "That's a pretty picture", tell them what you like about it: "I like the way you used reds and greys on the squirrel. It's coloured just like real squirrel that you'd see in the garden."

When your child has laid the table, don't just say, "Good job!", but say "I really like the way you put out the napkins."

This not only acknowledges what your child is doing right, it also helps the child feel competent in the skills they are gaining. This will boost their self-motivation to keep at it.

Step 3: Never Say "That's Easy"

Nothing devalues a child and their effort more than to tell them that the problem they've been struggling to work out alone for an hour is "easy".

Say your child is really struggling to master long-division. It would do their self-esteem, or motivation, no good if they asked for help and you sat down, looked at their problem and said: "Long-division's easy."

That immediately makes the child feel stupid, incompetent and disinclined to like maths. Your intentions may be good - to make light of the problem - but what you really make light of is your child's difficulties.

Instead, validate their difficulties: "Yes, long division can be a tricky subject.", and then offer practical help.

Step 4: Be Aware of Different Learning Styles

A child may seem unmotivated if all the information they're receiving is in a certain style, and it doesn't suit the style that's best for them

There are generally three types of learners:

Auditory:

  • Learn best by hearing information
  • Can "talk themselves" through a problem
  • May use rhymes, word games or songs to teach the information, such as this old one to learn the planets: "My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets" (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto)
  • May prefer audiobooks to listen to when reading

Visual

  • Learn best by seeing information
  • Make brightly-coloured charts and graphs to revise
  • May benefit from a study-wall of colour-coded homemade posters
  • Flashcards are useful
  • Mind may wander in oral presentations

Kinaesthetic

  • Learns best by doing (such as building a model)
  • Try to make learning active. Use props (such as counters) to teach mathematic principles
  • Encourage your child to take active breaks every thirty minutes when revising
  • Encourage your child to act-out passages when trying to learn a book
  • Hands-on-projects will boost your kinaesthetic learner's self-esteem and motivation.
Find out your child's learning style, and then cater your help to that style.
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