Does your child strive to do well? Is she eager to please?
Some children are keen as mustard to do their all-round best, while others seem almost
indifferent to it.
writes Dr Nicola Davies
Some children simply lack the motivation that others possess in abundance. Are they
born that way or is it a learned behaviour? Research suggests it is both. While it’s
true that some children naturally possess more enthusiasm, environment also plays
a significant role.
Imagine identical twin girls, separated at birth. They have exactly the same genetic
traits, but are being raised in different environments. One of the twins lives with
hardworking parents who lead a disciplined lifestyle. The school she
attends is acclaimed for its academic achievements and pupils tend to go on to be
The other twin, on the other hand, lives with parents who are not very ambitious
and spend much of their time watching television. The school she attends has mediocre
results and children are not encouraged to aspire outside their comfort zone.
It’s really a no-brainer that the first twin is likely to be more motivated. She
has learnt motivation from those around her, who are themselves modelling motivated
behaviour. So, while some
motivation is innate, we still have a role to play in our children’s lives when it
comes to nurturing that motivation.
Effects of low motivation
Does it really matter whether a child is motivated or not? Research
suggests it does, and that motivation in children can significantly impact on development.
Children who are motivated will set their own goals, direct their own behaviour to
achieve those goals, and pursue them with more energy and effort than children who
are not motivated. These traits are likely to follow the child into adulthood, a
time when goal-setting and achievement are vital to success.
On the other hand, children with low motivation may have difficulty
learning, which can lead to behavioural problems at school. This affects a child’s
ability to form friendships. The impact of low motivation is multifaceted: it can
have a negative effect on social, cognitive and emotional well-being.
If you recognise some of the telltale traits of low motivation in your child, what
is your next step? According to Vivien Sabel, author of The Blossom Method™: The
Revolutionary Way to
Communicate with your Baby from Birth, body language plays an important role in motivating
children. ‘Headnodding, positive eye gaze, encouraging and positive touch, a positive
rub on the back or arm or a heartfelt “you can do it” hug, are all examples of
motivational body language,’ she says. ‘These non-verbal actions combined with encouraging
verbal messages, can support motivation.’
Sabel also feels it can be useful to help children recognise the impact success has
on their own bodies. ‘One way of supporting children to believe in themselves is
by encouraging them to recognise their own successes through the art of thought-provoking
questioning,’ she says. ‘For example: “Do you remember how you felt when you got
a gold star? Can you describe how you felt?” Questions like these allow children
to consider their own
success, which can be very motivating.’
Is your child under-motivated?
There are a number of telltale signs
Avoidance– of activities that take effort such as homework or cleaning up after
Passive behaviour – when it becomes easier
not to do something than to face failure
Not finishing what they started– they simply
lose interest and move on to something different
Procrastination– putting things off until the
last possible moment
Isolation – in an effort to avoid being pressured
to do certain tasks
Types of motivation
There is a thin line between motivating children and pushing them too hard, so it
is worth getting to understand the two main types of motivation – reward-driven and
1. Reward-driven motivation
Motivating children by reward requires encouragement – giving children a reason to
do something is the secret to teaching them to be self-motivated in school and at
home. Think about the last time you had to do something you simply didn’t want to
do – a pile
of laundry or filing your taxes, for example. What finally made you get it done?
It is likely to be some kind of reward, even if that reward is ticking the task off
your long ‘to do’ list.
2. Punishment-driven motivation
Punishment can also be a motivator. Consider a part of your job that you dread –
doing presentations or accounts, for example. You are aware that if you don’t do
these tasks there will be
negative consequences – you could be reprimanded by your boss or even lose your job.
These threats motivate you to buckle down and get the job done.
Both methods can work with children, but reward-driven motivation
can make children feel encouraged and supported, while punishment-driven motivation
can give them the feeling of being pushed and nagged. Punishment driven motivation
can also make
children feel like they are being forced to do something against their will, while
reward-driven motivation gives them a sense of being able to choose for themselves.
Why a tidy bedroom is so much nicer!
Olwyn Avery uses positive reinforcement to motivate her five-year old daughter Allira.
She believes that star charts, fun activities and
stories are useful for explaining the positive results of hard work and building
up Allira’s confidence – while also describing the consequences of chores not being
done. ‘One day when I was
trying to motivate Allira to tidy her room I reminded her that
having a tidy room would make finding her favourite dolls and toys easier and that
she would be able to sleep in comfort,’ says
Olwyn. ‘The next day Allira proudly presented a clean and tidy
room for inspection!’
Eight ways to motivate your child
1. Be respectful
Children respond to positive reinforcement so let them know you are there to help
in any way you can and that you’re on their side.
2. Involve teachers
Make the time to meet with your child’s teachers and explain any
concerns you might have. Their patience and understanding will be
every bit as helpful to your child as your own.
3. Promote balance
A big part of overcoming lack of motivation is helping children to
understand the importance of balance, as this helps them prioritise. For instance,
it’s important to do homework before watching cartoons and so on.
4. Stay in the present
Don’t predict your child’s future based on current behaviour. This
will achieve nothing as young children don’t have a true concept of
consequences. Focus on the present and take it one step at a time.
5. Be firm but gentle
While it is important to be stringent in teaching your child to follow
your rules, there is such a thing as exerting too much discipline.
Provide strong support, not criticism – helpful reminders are
wonderful, while nagging and harsh criticism is not.
6. Think bitesize
What may seem a series of simple tasks to you can be intimidating to children, so
break them down into an easy schedule, such as tidying their toys before dinner every
day, brushing their teeth after dessert and then being given permission to play games.
7. Match accomplishments and rewards
Positive reinforcement is a great motivator in children. Allow the reward to match
the accomplishment: the bigger the accomplishment, the bigger the reward.
8. Eliminate distractions
Children are not good multi-taskers, so watching cartoons while
doing chores is not a good idea. Teach children to focus on the task at hand and
they will save time and develop self-discipline that will benefit them for the rest
of their lives.