Turning to Science to Keep Your Child Motivated


THERE ARE A FEW truths about motivation:

  • There is a decline in motivation as one ages
  • Keeping children interested can often prove to be a Herculean task
  • When your child is engaged in an activity that he/she finds interesting, motivation will be high

Multiple studies have explored the question of motivation in children: they have focused on why some children give up, why others succeed despite enormous difficulty, and why yet other children set goals they can’t possibly achieve.

Motivation matters. Much evidence suggests that children’s ability to persist through difficulty predicts social and educational outcomes. One study found that persistence in 5/6-year-olds significantly predicted their reading and maths achievement between kindergarten and early adolescence.

A recent study has found that “paying attention and persisting on tasks are foundational skills that are critical early in life and continue to positively predict a variety of social and academic outcomes throughout childhood and into adulthood”.

Many factors can explain children’s lack of persistence:

• Lack of interest
• Difficult or insufficiently challenging task
• Low self-esteem/confidence
• Pessimism
• Fatigue
• The presence of physical, mental or nutritional problems.
• Unsupportive parents/teachers
• Stress
• Procrastination
• The perception that parents/teachers are too demanding
• The failure to see how the task will benefit them directly (not worth it)
• The absence of academic readiness

Fortunately, motivation psychologists have shown that there are strategies to help increase motivation.

What can motivation psychologists teach you about motivating your child?

1) Richard deCharms – Teach your child that he/she is responsible for his/her performance

The theory of personal causation developed by deCharms posits that “man is the origin of his behaviour”.

This theory suggests that it is human nature to fight against being somebody’s “pawn”. In other words, deCharms contends that children are more likely to persist if they consider that they are at the origin of their behaviour.

What can you do? According to deCharms’ “origin sequence”, activities should take the form of “plan-choose-act-take responsibility”.

This means that children should be active participants in decision-making processes rather than passive recipients.

Ask your child what he/she would like to do. Help him/her brainstorm. Ask how he/she plans to achieve a given task. Let your child know of the consequences. Let children know that, through their actions, they are responsible for consequences.

Providing multiple options for achieving a task also enables children to feel as though they at the origin of their behaviour.

2) Bernard Weiner – Teach your child the importance of effort

Weiner largely developed the attribution theory initially introduced by Fritz Heider.

This theory focuses on how individuals make attributions about why they were successful or why they failed at a given activity. Individuals’ attributions determine the amount of effort they will invest in future activities.

According to the theory, attribution can be either internal (when individuals attribute performance to ability and effort) or external (when individuals attribute performance to luck and task difficulty). Individuals’ ability to control outcomes is also an important factor in this theory.

What can you do? It is important to make your child aware that effort is the main predictor of success, and that he/she can control his/her performance. This involves assisting your child to assess the internal causes of his/her failures.

Explain to your child that his/her actions are the greatest determinants of success. Explain to him/her that practising an activity consistently will eventually lead to the desired outcomes. Brainstorm with your child to identify strategies that may help. Keep in mind that different strategies can lead to the same goal. Let him/her participate in coming up with potential solutions.

For instance, if your child has language acquisition problems, help him/her understand that reading for even ten minutes a day can be a great help. Take your child to the library and let him/her decide which books he/she would like to read – comic books, historical books, ghost stories. If your child is creative, pick a DIY book or a cookery book for children.

There are numerous examples of how highly successful personalities met much failure before finally succeeding. Who does your child admire? Find out about how they overcame failures (learning from their mistakes, trying over and over again, asking for help) and share the information with your child.

3) Victor Vroom – Make it relevant

Vroom developed the expectancy theory of motivation which proposes that individuals’ behaviour is tied to the desirability of the expected outcomes. According to the expectancy theory, individuals were more likely to remain motivated if they perceived that their efforts and performance were worthwhile. In other words, individuals were more motivated if they believed that their behaviour would result in a desirable reward.

What can you do? It is important for your child to understand why specific behaviour will lead to a desirable outcome. Explain to your child why attaining a particular goal will be beneficial to him/her in real-life situations. Help your child identify the multiple paths to the desired outcome.

4) Abraham Maslow – address physical, mental and nutritional problems.

Everybody knows about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, there can be no motivation if basic and more pressing primary needs have not been met. Maslow’s view on motivation is that parents must provide a health-fostering, safe and nurturing environment if they want their children to thrive and excel.

What can you do? Ensure that your child is well. Is he/she suffering from anxiety or other related issues? Is he/she getting enough rest? Is he/she eating nutritional meals?

5) Frederic Skinner – set reasonable expectations

Skinner is well known for his studies on behaviourism and for his notion that man can be conditioned to an environment. In other words, a child can be taught how to respond to his/her environment.

One of Skinner’s most important findings in relation to motivation was that if one’s behaviour led to positive rewards, then that behaviour was more likely to be repeated.

Skinner drew on Thorndike’s Law of Effect: “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation”.

What can you do? When your child often meets with success, he/she is likely to repeat the behaviour that led to success. The opposite is true. It is important to set realistic expectations for your child. They should be neither easy nor too hard.

If a child repeatedly meets with failure, he/she is likely to become less motivated and less willing to try new things. This has been confirmed by the Endowed Progress Effect which posits that individuals who encounter initial progress become more committed to continued effort to achieve the desired goal. You can read about the Endowed Progress Effect here.

In the attempt to motivate your child, set expectations should take into account his/her age and abilities. It is important to keep in mind that not all children are motivated by the same things.

Does your child seek the approval of others? Does he/she seek challenges or creativity? Knowing what motivates your child is the first step to keeping him/her more engaged.

One of Skinner’s key findings, still valid today, is that positive reinforcement helps produce desired behaviour. Give praise where praise is due.

One study suggests that praising children verbally for work well done increases their motivation. However, a word of caution is in order: According to the Handbook of competence and motivation, praise and rewards should be used sparingly.

If rewards must be used, they must be closely related to the task accomplished and must be deserved. Rewarding insufficient effort sends the message that minimum effort is acceptable.

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I speak about issues like these in my EBook Fifteen Days to Independent Kids. Get a free preview here.