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Student Potential

How to Motivate Your Kids

Matthias Berkes, PhD
Matthias Berkes, PhD

In elementary school I was a huge book nerd. I couldn’t get enough of a series of fantasy novels – the kind that are blatant rip-offs of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although I was too young to know at the time. I read them at every opportunity and was supported in this with frequent trips to the bookstore with my parents, and birthday and Christmas gifts from family and friends.

At the time, I wasn’t reading because I was being rewarded for it. I didn’t receive an allowance for the number of books read, I didn’t receive praise, and I certainly wasn’t being graded on this by teachers. But something happened around middle school, where my reading habits essentially dropped off a cliff.

So, what happened?

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

Past research would describe what I was experiencing in childhood as something called intrinsic motivation, which is where we perform an activity for its inherent satisfaction – because we find it to be rewarding, interesting, or enjoyable. The flip side to that is extrinsic motivation, where we do an activity or try to achieve an outcome because we’re expecting an external reward (like a financial payment or a good grade) or to avoid a punishment (like a fine or a verbal reprimand). One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but when and why we might want to encourage one type of motivation over the other is important to consider, particularly when we’re raising a child.

Intrinsic motivation originates in early childhood, and it’s easily described as that desire to explore, inquire, and play without receiving external rewards. Its importance cannot be understated, as it has been found to be critical for children’s cognitive, social, and physical development, and higher levels of intrinsic motivation leads to higher academic achievement. But as we transition from early childhood to our teen years, intrinsic motivation takes a backseat because of competing distractions like school requirements, extra-curricular activities, or part-time jobs. Extrinsic motivations, like good grades, teacher and parent praise, and peer recognition take priority. So the question is: how can we foster intrinsic motivation in school outcomes, or if not that, then how can we help children internalize extrinsic motivations so that it’s not just about the grades?

Supporting motivation through autonomy, competence and relatedness

There are a few ways that we can help foster intrinsic motivation and support extrinsic motivation when it’s unavoidable. Let’s break down how autonomy, competency, and relatedness can be used to support motivation in your child.

The first concept, called autonomy, is about an individual’s sense of control, initiative, and ownership in what they are doing. We can encourage this in children by acknowledging their perspective and wishes, providing rationale for the desired behaviours, and giving choices in how to proceed. For example, if a child dislikes reading but needs to do so for literary and academic growth, you can provide options for the child to let them maintain some sense of control. The choices could include genres, or when and where the reading occurs. When your child has some sense of autonomy over the behaviour, they are more likely to see it through.

The second concept is competence. Feeling that we have the right skills, abilities, and knowledge provides positive reinforcement that we can succeed and grow. We can promote competence by placing children in environments that provide the right kind of challenges, positive feedback, and opportunities to grow. For example, if a child is enrolled in soccer, having coaching and parental feedback that promotes positive growth, and provides the opportunity for the child to get better and advance to new leagues or roles if desired can improve feelings of overall competence.

The same is true when externally motivating a child who has no interest in the activity. For example, many children struggle or dislike physical education/gym class in school. Rather than scolding a child for running slowly (an extrinsic punishment), providing feedback that helps them improve will increase their competence and subsequent motivation to, if not excel, at least feel capable of performing and getting a good grade.

The final concept is relatedness. This is a more social element, concerning belonging and connection. We can facilitate relatedness by conveying respect and care. As parents, this means showing interest in our child’s chosen activities (which also reinforces their sense of autonomy), responding empathetically to their desires and struggles, and conveying that they are cared for and matter. Of course, many children struggle or dislike certain academic topics, like math or physics. In these cases, extrinsic motivations like good grades or avoiding parental displeasure are often at the fore. Teachers and parents can increase relatedness in these scenarios by being empathetic to the difficulties many children face in these subjects. Additionally, we can attempt to link these subjects to a student’s interests. For example, say a child has an interest in pursuing a career in architecture because they love the design element; however, they struggle with math. Acknowledging their strengths and interests, while providing a supportive environment when they struggle with related skills, can help children succeed when they otherwise would be discouraged.

Because of the pressures of parental, academic, and occupational expectations, children are at risk of losing their intrinsic motivations as they get older and progress through school. By keeping in mind that we can support them in their autonomy, their sense of competence, and being empathetic, we can provide environments that help them succeed regardless of their aspirations or struggles.

And as for me, my reading, and the attached intrinsic motivation, there’s some positive news. After I had succeeded in school, through high school and undergrad and starting my graduate studies, I rediscovered my love for reading and picked up a novel again – this time, sci-fi.

Matthias Berkes, PhD
Written by Matthias Berkes, PhD

Matthias is an associate at the behavioural research firm, BEworks, where he applies his expertise and data-driven insights to projects across multiple sectors, including financial services, private and commercial insurance, higher education, healthcare, and more. Matthias received his MA and PhD in Psychology from York University. He’s passionate about encouraging engagement and helping to create healthy and sustainable communities.