Using motivation to help children to learn and flourish

Developing an understanding of different forms of motivation and their consequences can be vital in helping children to learn and to flourish. Here Dr Jemma Harris, mum of two, Chartered psychologist and Founder of Happy Little Bundles, highlights six ways to help children to develop motivation that is sustained from within, associated with resilience, perseverance and, most importantly, with elements of wellness, flourishing and fulfilment.

Types of motivation

Whilst motivation can differ in terms of quantity it can also differ in terms of quality. Children can be motivated by things such as receiving treats, stickers, merit points or the praise of a caregiver. Indeed, these things are often used as rewards for good behaviour or performance on a task. However, not all behaviour is motivated by external factors. Children can also be motivated by feelings such as curiosity, interest or fun. The fundamental difference between these sets of motivational factors is that the former rely on the presence of external rewards or pressures and the latter concerns internal feelings and experiences.

These two fundamentally different types of motivation have been explored and investigated within a psychological theory called self-determination theory. Formally, the two types of motivation are known as:

Controlled motivation:

Controlled forms of motivation are generally based upon external rewards and pressures. For example, tangible rewards or praise. This form of motivation is sometimes referred to as, and equated with, extrinsic or non-self-determined motivation. You can often see controlled forms of motivation underpinning a lot of activities such as paid work, activities engaged in solely to impress others, or activities that a health practitioner has suggested that we engage in.

Autonomous motivation:

Autonomous forms of motivation, on the other hand, tend to be based upon internal factors such as interest and enjoyment. The most archetypal and pure type of autonomous motivation is known as intrinsic motivation. You can often see autonomous forms of motivation underpinning activities such as completing a puzzle, engaging in free play, or learning about something out of curiosity.

Psychologists view that motivation lies on a continuum from more controlled (i.e. regulated by external factors) to more autonomous (i.e. regulated by internal factors) forms. There are therefore also a number of types of motivation that fall somewhere between these two main types. For example, consider motivation that involves feelings such as guilt or shame. You can read more about those subtypes here.

For now, the important thing is to recognise controlled and autonomous forms of motivation. These two main forms of motivation have been shown to result in qualitatively different outcomes.

The consequences

Whilst external rewards and pressures can have immediate effects and benefits- they can often have broader and more negative implications. For example, external motivational factors can leave individuals with a decreased sense of volition, choice and control. When the external pressures of rewards are removed or in the face of difficulties and challenges, the individual may well not persist with the desired behaviour. In contrast, autonomous forms of motivation have been associated with beneficial effects for: 

  • creativity
  • passion
  • vitality/energy
  • sense of choice and volition
  • effort/perseverance in the face of difficult tasks and situations
  • general wellbeing
  • initiative
  • quality of performance 

These benefits have been documented across a range of life contexts, including education, healthcare, physical activity, and psychological therapies.

We all have to start somewhere

Whilst being motivated via internal factors might be the most beneficial, guiding children’s actions using external rewards is incredibly useful and, many would say, essential. After all, thinking back to our younger selves, how many of us would have found purely internal sources of motivation to brush our teeth, comb our hair, eat our vegetables or tidy up without at least little external pressure? External factors are often vital components in helping children to learn to operate in a social world and in encouraging them to adopt health and hygiene related behaviours.

As parents and educators, an important part of what we do, therefore, involves helping children to move from externally regulated behaviours towards the internal regulation of their own behaviour- a process known as internalisation.

Six top tips

Being aware of the motivational continuum and the possibility that we can push children along the continuum in either direction can make us better able to interact with children that can support them in their autonomy.

Here are six top tips to consider when motivating children: 

  1. Provide a meaningful rationale for activities, particularly activities that children might not want to do but that are important tasks and activities for them to engage in and adopt. Explore the benefits of completing the task or activity (or vice versa).
  2. Acknowledge any negative feelings that a child may have about the activity. Rather than sweeping negative feelings under the carpet, it can often be helpful to acknowledge them.
  3. Allow more space for internalisation by avoiding controlling language wherever possible. Try to see if you can cut down on the use of ‘must’, ‘have to’ or the dreaded ‘because I said so’.
  4. Offer a sense of choice (no matter how small). Providing an element of choice can help to foster feelings of control and autonomy (important for moving towards the autonomous end of the motivational continuum). Whilst you won’t want to offer a child the option to opt out of brushing their teeth or eating a balanced meal, you can provide elements of choice around small aspects of such activities (e.g. the colour of their toothbrush, the type of toothpaste to use, the vegetables to have for dinner).
  5. Avoid providing external rewards or pressures for activities that a child is already autonomously motivated towards. Research has shown that if a child is already motivated by internal factors, the introduction of external pressures and rewards has been shown to undermine, and therefore reduce, those existing internal, autonomous motivational factors.
  6. Frame feedback around children’s feelings of developing competence and their choices/autonomy. Also try to also use these interactions to boost feelings of social connection. All three of these factors feed into supporting basic psychological needs for competence, social connection (relatedness) and autonomy- all linked to the more autonomous end of the motivational continuum.

Dr Jemma Harris is a Chartered psychologist, researcher and social entrepreneur. She works with social enterprises, and other organisations with links to health and wellbeing, to provide advice on how to align training, content and activities with psychological theories and practice. Jemma also provides assistance with issues related to outcome measurement, data analysis and developing research informed reports on social impact. You can read more about her work HERE.


By Jemma Harris on 19th April 2018

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