As a parent, it is so rewarding when you see your child succeed at something, whether an academic subject at school, a sport, a creative hobby or as a baby taking their first tentative steps without holding your hands. It is even more rewarding knowing that your child’s achievement is as a result of their own interest and enthusiasm, because they feel self-motivated, not because they feel pressurised to do so.
All children are born with an intrinsic motivation to learn. As they grow however, they are faced with so many extrinsic influences: expectations from parents and teachers to perform well, a fear of failure or letting others down, fear of punishment, and lack of stimulation, that they lose their natural ability to self-motivate. In fact, the messages that we give our children, at home and in school, can profoundly affect their attitude to learning, so much so that if we are not careful, they can develop into disaffected, disinterested and highly demotivated teenagers!
The majority of education systems measure success in terms of results and by default, parents tend to do the same. Encouragement to succeed, do well or complete a task often involves the prospect of a reward if a child lives up to expectations and punishment if they do not! But studies indicate that punishment or persistently negative criticism demotivates learning while nurturing intrinsic motivation, which is goal orientated rather than reward orientated, encourages a love of learning, natural curiosity and maximum effort to achieve.
With this in mind, how can we encourage self-motivation in our children?
Establish strong self-belief from the start. Show your child you believe in them from the very beginning. Nurturing words and touches, a caring tone of voice, celebration of little successes and praise for effort helps form your child’s attitude towards their own ability to achieve. Positive thinking directly affects their level of motivation.
Create the right environment. Growing up in a loving, supportive and affirming environment that respects individuality and fosters independence creates a strong sense of self-worth. We can enable this by creating a structure for our children, with clear boundaries and set routines that help them feel safe, secure and manage expectations. Similar to positive thinking, positive emotions about self and others increases a child’s level of motivation.
What sort of learner is your child? All children are not all motivated in the same way. Just as with adults, children have different likes, dislikes and natural abilities so some children’s natural motivation to learn may require more nurturing and stimulation than others. Know and understand your child’s instinctive learning style. Are they an auditory, visual or kinesetic learner? Observe if your child becomes bored easily. Intelligent children often become demotivated through lack of stimulation so ask yourself how much your child really loves what they are doing?
Expose your child to a variety of experiences. This helps activate interest as your child discovers what excites them and what they are good at. Whether going on a nature trail along the beach or attending an enrichment programme they enjoy, stimulating activities that arouse natural curiosity help create a love of learning and will motive your child’s innate desire to discover.
Let your child decide. When a child feels interested and good about what they are doing, their confidence grows and with it their own desire to learn and achieve. Support your child as they discover their niche or passions. Their own willingness to succeed is a far deeper motivation for learning than acting out of a willingness to please parents or teachers.
Failure is good! Research shows that our inability to accept failure as a good thing demotivates our desire to try again, so encourage your child to accept failure as a positive learning experience. Talk to your child about what they have achieved rather than what they have not, offering praise and supportive comments where appropriate. Providing honest and realistic feedback about the outcome of an activity, performance or your child’s behaviour is important but avoid negative judgements and criticisms about their ability that are likely to knock their confidence and self-esteem.
Set attainable goals. These should challenge your child but enable them to feel good about their achievements and prospects of further success. Nurture your child’s sense of “I can” rather than “I can’t” — they are more likely to want to try again and again and again.
Be an inspirational role model. There is no greater spark to self-motivation than looking up to someone we love and admire who inspires us to succeed. We all have our heroes but you are your child’s first and closest teacher with the most power to ensure they grow up to be happy, well rounded and self-achieving adults.
Fiona Walker is the Principal of Schools / CEO of Julia Gabriel Education. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.