Scientists from Harvard University decided to investigate where motivation comes from and how to increase it. The multidisciplinary study of the National Research Council on Child Development at this university states that heredity affects the basis for certain activities. But much more – the experience of achievements and defeats, adult examples, and upbringing.
Children with little motivation to learn or explore have developed avoidance motivation. It encourages them to avoid danger, risk, and negativity, such as criticism or low grades. In such a mood, it is tough to set a long-term goal. There is a second type of motivation – achievement, which directs us to the reward, the result. In this mood, you can develop purposefulness and the desire to get delayed gratification—these two types of motivation balance each other.
The child might experience too much fear – anything becomes a source of stress; we can say they are afraid to live. And then avoidance becomes the primary type of motivation. Suppose the mother was away at work or in the hospital for a long time, and the grandmothers and aunts replaced her. It is the same if adults behave like children – because of addictions or just hysterically, unpredictably. Suppose the mother had postpartum depression for a long time. If parents are not empathic, ignore the tears and appeals of the child, and are only concerned with meeting his physical needs. We are talking about easy tasks, like painting or learning a song – the activities that appear funnier than essay writing or something like that, as those tasks will blow out the whole family involved in the process. If the mother, for example, is prone to overprotect and instills in the child that there is danger at every step, she is overly afraid that the baby will get hurt or avoids troubles because of his independence.
Lack of positive relationships with adults reduces motivation to try new activities, even with a hereditary predisposition to reward motivation. Animal studies have shown that due to negative experiences, the brain activates the area that generates fear while reducing the size that creates desire. Over time, circuits are reformed in the hippocampus, which controls memory, and the amygdala, which is involved in emotional reactions.
It is also essential that the baby sees how adults work. Research has shown that a child under one-year-old who sees an adult successfully performing a task will make significantly more attempts to succeed than one who sees an adult failing.
For preschoolers, adult support is much more important than peers, and even criticism from friends will not reduce motivation. In adolescents, the opposite is true. Due to rapid changes in the body, they react too emotionally to peers’ feedback, especially those of the opposite sex. Those who previously had an avoidance motivation react particularly painfully to peer rejection. How can parents help? Firstly, they should create a positive environment in advance, even at the pre-pubescent age (10-12 years) – a chance to find friends in clubs, studios, sections, etc., among the children of their parent’s friends because teenagers will no longer listen to the advice of mom or dad about who to be friends with. So they should at least have a choice. Secondly, parents can give support and family warmth. Although it seems that teenagers ignore this all, this is the best way to reduce the risk of peer pressure. If the company encourages anti-social behavior or criticizes the desire to learn, teenagers with close family relationships are best able to resist it.
Seven ways to help motivate children in other periods:
1. Show curiosity and encourage exploration
Preschoolers are naturally motivated by play, and elementary school students are motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn. Adults can reinforce these motivations through positive feedback, and children can copy their interests.
Children instinctively avert their eyes from objects that are too familiar but too complex. They choose tasks of precisely the complexity they need. Therefore, at the age of 6-10, it is essential to follow the child’s interests to encourage attempts to learn about the world around them.
2. Do not rely on gadgets.
Social interaction is the key to motivation. The best educational game alone will not help with this. Research has proven that children learn a language faster through direct communication with a teacher than if they listen and see it on video. Gadgets are an excellent addition to learning in our digital world, but they cannot replace personal communication. It releases natural opioids – dopamine, and serotonin, which activate the brain’s reward system.
3. Praise the process, not the result.
The first attempts are unsuccessful. Each child learns new skills at their own pace. If you evaluate only successful attempts, you will fear negative evaluation and not meeting expectations. This will strengthen the motivation to avoid. But “well done, great” for a not-very-good result also reduces incentive. After all, why make an effort if you are praised for everything? So the best way out: is support and praise for efforts, concentration, and work.
4. Debunk the myth of innate talents
What children’s environment says about talents is of great importance. If it is believed that people have or do not have natural abilities, the initial failure is explained by the lack of talent, which reduces motivation. Suppose we talk about the importance of practice, working hard to achieve results, and motivation increases. It has been proved that even a child who is used to considering themselves to be deprived of abilities significantly increases academic success if an authoritative adult proves that this is not the case, that trial and error will give results.
5. Be careful with incentives.
If a boy or girl is accustomed to material rewards, it extinguishes long-term motivation. The expected prize loses its novelty, and the brain shows less neural activity in the dopamine system. If the bonus is also smaller than expected, motivation slows down dramatically. So if you resort to rewards, the only way to stay motivated is to “raise the stakes.” The prize should be a surprise and even better than the child expected. This is not very realistic. Therefore, the best way to instill healthy motivation is positive feedback plus activities enjoyable to the child: play, creativity, and research.
6. Give your child the experience of success.
Prove to children in practice that success is possible. We are unlikely to be motivated to do something if we think it is impossible. If something is difficult for a student, it is tempting to give new tasks to catch up. But every child should have jobs in which they are successful. Divide the difficulty into “small steps” so the student copes and wants to move on.
7. Criticize the already motivated
A child who wants to become an athlete will perceive constructive criticism from the coach as a chance to improve results. But a beginner in the fitness center who just came to work out, after criticism, may be disappointed in his abilities and will not come there again. So criticize only those who are ready for it. Those whose motivation is weak will be much better affected by encouragement for attempts, tips, and simplification of tasks.