Motivating Learning in Young Children
Young children learn from everything they do. They are naturally curious;
they want to explore and discover. If their explorations 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 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
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
Newborn infants are born with a tremendous amount of intrinsic motivation.
This motivation is aimed toward having some visible effect on the environment.
When infants can actually see the results of their actions as a reward,
they are motivated to continue those actions. These attempts toward control
are limited within the young child, and include crying, vocalizations,
facial expressions and small body movements. Toys that change or make
sound as the child moves them are therefore strong motivators.
As infants grow and continue to mature (9-24 months), more voluntary,
purposeful movements are possible. This gives them more control of their
environment. This wider range of control allows children to feel that
they are successful. Success leads to higher self-esteem and feelings
of self-worth, which leads to strengthened motivation. As children continue
to develop during this time period, they are better able to make decisions
and plan what to do to gain control of things around them. They are beginning
to set their own goals for activities. This success is not based upon
adult standards, but totally upon the child's ability to accomplish the
goals that he has set out for himself.
By two years of age, children are developing the ability to execute
a sequence of events in order to achieve a goal. They also have an appreciation
for standards and begin to evaluate their efforts. By three years of
age, children become interested in doing things well, as opposed to just
doing them. They have an idea of various levels of competency in performance
and judge their success by their own internal standards. Therefore they
have much less need for adult feedback about the quality of their efforts.
Preschoolers (age 3-5 years) are beginning to be more involved with
verbal problem solving skills. They direct their own learning through
speech and use vocal communication to direct their own behavior to solve
problems. Young children are often heard talking themselves through a
series of actions that lead to the solution of a problem. As children
get older, this "talking out loud" will become an internal monologue.
This newly developing ability to problem solve is the basis for motivation
at this stage. Having the self confidence to know that one can solve
a problem motivates the learner to accept other new and challenging situations,
which in turn lead to greater learning.
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.
Difficulties arise when adults or others within the child's environment
enforce external standards and replace the internal reward system with
one that depends upon outside forces to supply all of the rewards (candy,
money, excessive praise). Children then begin to feel successful only
if someone else rewards them for accomplishments. They lose their
intrinsic motivation and may only feel success when someone else judges
them as successful. In such situations, children may not develop feelings
of self-worth, and will judge their own value by someone else's standards.
Your child should never need to ask, "Did I do well?" She should know
and be confident in her own successes.
There are several strategies parents can use to help children remain
more fully intrinsically motivated.
- Provide an environment (through age appropriate toys, activities,
etc.) that allows children to freely explore and to see the effect
of their actions (i.e., toys that have visible or tangible changes
- Allow children ample time when working to allow for persistence.
When children are deeply involved with an activity, make sure that
they can finish without interruption. Resist the natural urge to "help," and
let the child know if, for example, we have to go to the grocery store
in a few minutes.
- Respond to children's needs in a consistent, predictable manner,
but allow them to be as independent as possible. This does NOT mean
ceding all control to your child. All children need clearly defined
limits. Playtime, however, need not be structured and organized. Let
your kid be a kid!
- Provide many opportunities for children and adults to explore together
and interact directly. It is important for both children and adults
to be working together on an activity. This lets you observe, model,
and encourage your child.
- Provide situations that give children an acceptable challenge. Activities
that are slightly difficult for the child will be more motivating and
provide for stronger feelings of success when accomplished. This may
take some trial and error at first.
- Give children opportunities to evaluate their own accomplishments.
Rather than stating that you think they have done a good job, ask them
what they think of their work. You'll never go wrong by asking the
question, "What do YOU think?"
- Do not use excessive rewards. They tend to undermine children's ability
to value themselves. Praise and rewards should be based upon children's
effort and persistence, rather than on the actual accomplishment.
The world through a child's eyes is an awesome place. Allow children
to explore and discover their world. Around every corner is an experience
just waiting to surprise and excite young growing minds; all they need
is a small amount of direction and a large amount of freedom. It is not
necessary to praise and reward children for their own actions as they
attempt to control their environment. The feelings of accomplishment
they gain from results of those actions will be reward enough. Providing
excessive praise and rewards is unnecessary and can actually be harmful
to children's motivation and desire to learn. Remember, the habits and
attitudes toward learning that are formed in these early years set the
mood for all future learning.
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:
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.