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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

The Intrinsic Motivation Engine: Helping Kids Drive Their Learning

“How do I help my child develop intrinsic motivation?”

It’s a common question — but not quite the right one. Children and teens are already motivated . . . highly motivated . . . to do things they care about.

For example, my four-year-old has a deep, intrinsic interest in making elaborate lego structures. He can focus on these structures for hours at a stretch. And he displays remarkable frustration tolerance when towers topple or pieces pop off. He experiments, he perseveres, and he does it without any cajoling from me. He does NOT display this same motivation for drawing/writing or cleaning up his toys!

The better question is:

How do I help my child tap into their motivation . . . and apply it to developing good academic habits, health habits, etc?

Some kids will be temporarily motivated (sometimes VERY motivated) by the promise of an extrinsic reward. But, as this MindShift article notes, “ a substantial body of social science research going back decades has concluded that giving rewards for certain types of behavior is not only futile but harmful. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identifies seven drawbacks to extrinsic rewards: they cripple intrinsic motivation, limit performance, squash creativity, stifle good conduct, promote cheating, can become habit-forming, and spur a short-term mindset.”

Pink writes this in his book, “For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation — the drive do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing — is essential for high levels of creativity.”

So what works better? 1) Help children figure out what drives them. 2) Link their efforts in school or at home to that vision.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, “adolescents are more motivated by pleasure than pain; therefore, focusing on the positive outcomes of good choices is often more powerful than emphasizing the negative consequences of poor choices.”

In two-way conversation, explore and emphasize the why behind practicing piano, developing good homework strategies, writing a better essay, or studying Latin vocabulary words. It’s not just about acing a test. It’s not just about getting into college years down the road. How will this strengthen their ability to participate in class, engage with their teachers, share their ideas, collaborate with peers, lead, create, and design? If they believe in the why, they will be much more motivated to figure out the how.

This is one distinct advantage of the type of feedback we offer students in the middle school: grades on a report card are not students’ primary motivation engine. Our teachers help students understand the why behind each unit and skill — and they help them engage in metacognitive activities that put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

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