MOTIVATING LEARNING IN YOUNG CHILDREN
Young children learn from everything they do. They are naturally curious; they want to explore and discover. If what they explore bring pleasure or success, they will want to learn more. During these early years, children form attitudes about learning that will last a lifetime. Children who receive the right sort of support and encouragement during these years will be creative, adventurous learners throughout their lives. Children who do not receive this sort of support and interaction are likely to have a much different attitude about learning later in life.
Characteristics of Motivation in Young Children
Children do many things simply because they want to do them. Selecting a toy or a shirt to wear is the result of “intrinsic motivation.” The child makes his/her own choice and achieves satisfaction from both the act of choosing and from the opportunity to play with the toy or wear the shirt. Since the activity is generating the motivation, it is mostly self-sustaining for as long as the child wants to continue the activity.
Children also engage in some activities because adults tell them to, or in an effort to please another party. These activities are “extrinsically motivated.” When a child is extrinsically motivated, the reward comes from outside the child-it has to be provided by someone else, and has to be continually given for the child to remain motivated enough to continue the activity. It is more difficult for a child to sustain extrinsically motivated activity because of this reliance upon some outside force.
Since intrinsically motivated activity is more rewarding in and of itself, children learn more from this sort of activity and they retain that learning better. Intrinsically motivated children are more involved in their own learning and development. In other words, a child is more likely to learn and retain information when he is intrinsically motivated – when he believes he is pleasing himself. Parents can build on this sense of confidence by guiding their child’s play and activities while still giving the child a range of options. This unstructured play is an essential element of the child’s motivation, learning, and development.
A number of behavioral characteristics are indicators of high motivation. Here are some of the important factors and some ways to help your child develop these characteristics.
Persistence is the ability to stay with a task for a reasonably long period of time. While very young children cannot concentrate on one activity for an hour, there are still measurable differences in the length of time that young children will engage in an activity. A highly motivated child will stay involved for a long period of time, whereas an unmotivated child will give up very easily when not instantly successful. Children learn persistence when they are successful at a challenging task. The art in building persistence is in offering a task that is just challenging enough, but not overwhelming.
Choice of challenge is another characteristic of motivation. Children who experience success in meeting one challenge will become motivated, welcoming another. These motivated learners will choose an activity that is slightly difficult for them, but provides an appropriate challenge. When they successfully complete such a task, children gain a high level of satisfaction. Unmotivated children (those who have not experienced early success) will pick something that is very easy and ensures an instant success. With such easy success, children feel only a very low level of satisfaction, because they know that the task offered little challenge. The challenge for parents is helping their child find an appropriate challenge while still allowing the choice to be the child’s.
The amount of dependency on adults is another indicator of motivation. Children with strong intrinsic motivation do not need an adult constantly watching and helping with activities. Children who have a lower level of motivation or are extrinsically motivated need constant attention from adults and cannot function independently. Since independence is an important aspect of quality learning, this dependence on adults will greatly limit children’s ability to succeed in school. Parents can increase the likelihood of their child’s building independent motivation by providing toys and activities that play to the child’s natural creativity and curiosity. Often, these are the simplest, most basic playthings: blocks, little plastic “people,” a toy car or two, and crayons and paper. These things encourage children to invent their own worlds rather than depending on an adult to entertain them.
The last indicator of motivational level is emotion. Children who are clearly motivated will have a positive display of emotion. They are satisfied with their work and show more enjoyment in the activity. Children without appropriate motivation will appear quiet, sullen and bored. They will not take any apparent pleasure in their activity and will often complain. As a parent, you are probably the best judge of your child’s moods. That cranky, whiny voice is usually a good indicator that a child doesn’t feel very good about herself and needs a new adventure of some sort.
Motivation in pre-school and early primary school
For parents of young children, the goal should be to appropriately support the development of motivation so that there is a proper foundation for optimal educational growth. Parents should be very cautions about the use of many extrinsic rewards, as this can severely interfere with the child’s motivational development. Praise for an accomplishment is appropriate, but be sure that your child is doing a task because she is interested, not because she thinks it will bring praise from you.
Enhancing Motivation in children late primary school and high school
For parents of older children, the goal should be to understand what motivates the child and to appropriately support the development his/her motivators for optimal performance and achievement. Understanding the motivators, will enable parents, teachers and mentors to know where to find the origin of frustrations children experiences and support them in lowering the frustrations. Motivational Maps Youth is an online diagnostic tool built to identify the child/young adult’s motivational mix as well as their level of motivation, putting teachers, parents and coaches/mentors in a favourable position of identifying the de-motivating aspects, giving them guidelines in how to deal with it.
How can motivation to learn be fostered in the school setting?
Although students motivational histories accompany them into each new classroom setting, it is essential for teachers to view themselves as active socialization agents capable of stimulating student motivation to learn.
Classroom climate is important. If students experience the classroom as a caring, supportive place where there is a sense of belonging and everyone is valued and respected, they will tend to participate more fully in the process of learning.
Defining tasks in terms of specific, short-term goals can assist students to associate effort with success (Stipek). Verbally noting the purposes of specific tasks when introducing them to students is beneficial (Brophy 1986).
Extrinsic rewards should be used with caution, for they have the potential for decreasing existing intrinsic motivation.
What takes place in the classroom is critical, but “the classroom is not an island” (Martin Maehr and Carol Midgley 1991). Depending on their degree of congruence with classroom goals and practices, school wide goals either dilute or enhance classroom efforts. To support motivation to learn, school-level policies and practices should stress “learning, task mastery, and effort” (Maehr and Midgley) rather than relative performance and competition.
Brophy, Jere (1997). Motivating students to learn. Guilford. CT: McGraw-Hill. (ISBN: 0070081980).
Einon, D. (1999). Learning early. Checkmark Books. ISBN: 0816040141
Lew, A. & Bettner, B. (1996) A parent’s guide to understanding and motivating children. Sheffield, UK: Connexions Press. (ISBN: 0962484180).
Kohn, Alfie. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying “Good job.” Young Children, 56, (5), 24-28.
Provided by the National Association of School Psychologists. Adapted from “Early Childhood Motivation”(forthcoming in the second edition of Helping Children at Home and School, NASP) by Martha Carlton, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville. © NITV, 2003.