Moving Forward in 2018: Teaching Children About Motivation

Moving Forward in 2018: Teaching Children About Motivation

Two weeks ago we posted about how to motivate yourself if you are trying to make changes. We noted that motivation is one of the most important predictors of success at making and keeping up changes. Motivation is also a great skill for children to have!  It can help at school and at home.  But how do you teach a child to have motivation?

Tell your child what motivation is. The first thing to do might be to let your child know what motivation is. You could use a definition like “Motivation is the thing inside us that helps us to want to do things and finish them, even when those things might be hard, like cleaning our room or reading a whole book by ourselves.”

Talk about what might motivate others. One great way for children to learn is through modeling. So if you want your child to learn motivation, one way to do that is by showing her what it looks like when you are motivated, especially when you are doing a task that might be hard or not so much fun. Let’s say that you are washing the dishes. You could say something like “You know, washing the dishes is not my favorite thing to do. Sometimes I would rather be reading a book. But I want the sink to be clean and to have clean plates next time that we eat. So that is why I am motivated to wash the dishes.”

You can also talk about the motivations for characters in the books that you read. For example, you might ask “Why did the bear climb the tree, even though he was getting stung by all those bees?” Helping your child figure out why characters persist in the face of hardship is a great way to learn about the concept of motivation.

Help your child to set goals and plan how to achieve them. Setting clear, reachable goals is a great way to learn how to use motivation to accomplish things. And then breaking the goal down into clear steps to reach the goal will help your child learn how to plan so that he will be more likely to be able to achieve the goal. It is also easier to maintain motivation if your child can see that he is making progress towards his goal.

So if your child has set a big goal like “Read one book every month”, one way to help him reach that goal would be able to plan how he will do this. You could break the goal into steps like “Pick a book” for the first few days of the month. Then “Read for 20 minutes each night before bed” could be the next step. For a mid-month step “Check how many pages left at Week 2” could lead to a possible next step “Adjust reading time each night to       minutes”. You can write these steps down where you child can see them and check them off as he finished each one.

Being able to check off progress towards a goal is also important because, sometimes, your child might not achieve the big goal. But if she can see that she made progress and feels good about that, she will be more likely to try again (and again, if necessary).

Reward progress. When you child meets a goal or a step towards a goal, you can help her to celebrate with a reward. This does not have to be a big thing. It could be a cheer, a high-five, or a short dance party. Or you could arrange to spend some special parent-child time together. We all need to feel that we have accomplished something when we meet our goals. This helps us to be more motivated the next time.

Some parents might think that if kids get rewards for being motivated, they will never learn to become motivated from within. But the purpose of rewards is not to replace self-motivation.  Instead, rewards can help to grow self-motivation. Everyone likes other people to acknowledge when they have done a good job. Reinforcing your child makes her more likely to want to work towards another goal because it helps her feel good about herself. And tangible rewards, like time on the computer, can be helpful when kids are trying to meet a particularly hard goal. So in the example above, if reading is tough for your child, it might help him to start moving towards his goal if he could earn a sticker for every night that he reads for 20 minutes, then when he has 14 stickers, maybe he gets a special treat, like the chance to choose what to have for dinner one night (within reason, of course). Often, once a kid feels like he is moving towards his goals, positive reinforcement like verbal praise or high-fives can help keep him going. The trick is making sure that the reward is in line with the task (for example, don’t promise your child $100 for reading 20 minutes) and to slowly move towards only intangible rewards (praise, high-fives, a hug). For more ideas, check out our post on creative ways to reward children.

Learning about motivation can help set your child up to be successful in meeting her goals, which could really help both at home and school. Remember that, just like with learning any other skill, this will be a process. And, like many other things that your child will learn, the best way to teach self-motivation is to model it. So get out there and set some goals for yourself and keep moving forward in 2018!

Image: © Vadimgozhda | Dreamstime.com

Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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