Smart Kids Are Motivated

Motivation is about the fun of solving problems, and about perceiving the task at hand as being desirable, challenging, and worth the trouble of reaching that specific goal. It?s also about creating interest and relevance.

A literal definition of motivation is the desire to do things. It?s accompanied by an interest, or sense of enthusiasm and commitment to accomplish a task or goal. The motivation an individual has is usually on a continuum ? I may be interested in photography as a hobby, but not interested (or motivated) enough to be a professional photographer.

This may also happen because I think I?ll never be able to learn all the camera and lens options I should know, or simply because I?m more motivated to study biology. Motivation is a combination of many things ? perceived difficulty or danger (which may result in a fear of failure), level of interest, having or not having a specific goal in mind, or lack of meaningful incentives.


Theories are simply someone?s way of describing things or actions that aren?t easily visible. In astronomy, ?black holes? are described through mathematical formulas and theories about how they?re formed and behave. In human behavior, psychologists develop theories about what motivates people by watching their behavior in different situations. In other words, we can see that some people are more motivated to read a book, and others more motivated to play a game, but knowing why isn?t always easy or straightforward.

There are many theories of motivation ? we?ve already discussed Maslow, who believed that certain needs must be satisfied ? such as food and safety ? before a person is interested or ?motivated? to address other needs, such as friendship and love. In the workplace, Fredrick Herzberg talks about extrinsic or external reward-based motivations ? such as salary and working conditions ? versus intrinsic, or internally-based motivations of achievement, recognition, and growth.

Since school is a child?s workplace, we try to build motivation through external conditions such as having clean and safe environments and incentives for achieving academic goals; as well as by instilling internal rewards through the fun of learning and building attitudes of fairness and justice.

Another theory, called the expectancy theory by Victor Vroom, says that we are motivated to do well, or not, depending upon the perceived probability of success; and by the value we place upon the result, or expected reward. So if we expect to fail in a task, or if the reward for succeeding is too small or nonexistent, we may not be motivated to even try something.

Sometimes as children we?ve learned that we ?can?t do math? based on difficulty or repeated failures; and so we?re not likely to try math problems, or be talked into ?doing math? without a major reward. In schools we use a variety of math instructional techniques to teach kids according to their learning styles; and we use different types of rewards or incentives ? certificates, trips to the zoo, tickets to a ballgame ? to try to address different preferences. 

In any case, with just these three theories out of many, you can see that motivation is very complex for all of us; and figuring out the best way to motivate any individual child can be difficult. But we also know that most children love to try everything, regardless of their level of skill or ability, and will often take risks for unique experiences (such as bungee jumping), or for reaching difficult goals.

It doesn?t bother them to fail, even time and again, if they don?t feel like someone is making fun of them or judging them in a negative way. But there are some children who are more focused on being able to perform a task well ? they?re less willing to take risks, and perhaps be perceived as incompetent; and may avoid failure at all costs. These differences are highly individual, and there?s no research that tells us why or how these tendencies are developed. What we can do is make sure we don?t penalize them, but rather challenge them to be assertive.

Solving Problems. It helps to focus on problem-solving, rather than individual abilities ? kids learn by accepting a challenge, succeeding with small risks, and then moving on to bigger risks; but they need to focus on the problem at hand, rather than focusing only upon their performance level. Working in groups, especially multi-level groups, is helpful ? kids learn by helping other kids, and each experiences the group (family, classroom, community) as safe and supportive. They learn to make decisions in a safe environment, and enjoy the fun of accomplishment that taking risks engenders.

Accepting Challenges. Students are motivated not only by challenging activities, but also by having fun. Initially, learning is fun to every child because they like the challenge and the new-ness of the world. Children who feel secure ? safe, supported, loved, and accepted ? will have ?fun? taking on challenging activities that are meaningful and relevant to their own experiences. They see themselves as competent, respected, and effective; providing a basis for further risk-taking and learning.

Creating Interest. As parents, it?s critical that you respect each child?s different abilities, and pay attention to their interests in structuring their activities. Young children should be exposed to many different types of activities and experiences, as they (and you) learn that they like some things a lot, and others not at all.

For example, planning an activity that?s in line with their interests and abilities will motivate them to read so they can learn more, and/or talk to others   about their interests using ?big? words that they get to explain, which enhances their social relationships. Ultimately they will want to plan their own activities, and set their own goals with your assistance and support.

Concrete Experience. Hands-on experiences are also critical. A frog is not a frog if the only place a child ?experiences? it is in a book or on the internet. Pictures and words cannot convey the cold, slick feel of a frog?s skin, nor realistically mimic a frog?s croak or smell.

Learning words is about attaching meaning (comprehension) to our world ? the meaning of the word ?rose? is significantly limited if it?s attached only to a picture rather than the real thing. I?ve read many times about how chandeliers and mirrors magnified candlelight in colonial homes, but it wasn?t until I actually experienced it as an adult that I understood how effective (and beautiful) it was. The same is true with smelling roses, and having a romantic candlelight dinner.

Active Participation. Children must actively participate in doing things that are significant to them. Concrete experience also enhances interpersonal relationships ? how many times have we felt an instant rapport with someone because they?ve actually been on the same river trip we?ve been on, or root for the same basketball team? This is what is motivating for all of us.

A student who is motivated will often perform at a higher level than a student who has a higher IQ, but has no interest in the problem at hand. A student may or may not test well, but nonetheless do very well in solving practical problems when interested and motivated to succeed; such as one student I worked with who had significant dyslexia and couldn?t read the manual, but could perform complex, multi-level tasks on aircraft equipment when shown what to do.

Some ways in which you can help MOTIVATE your kids are:

Plan fun activities that fit their interests ? storytelling at the library, visiting the zoo or a museum, or playing a game. Many museums have free days, and kids? activities.

Talk to your kids ? give them a topic to discuss with you, or let them pick a topic, or simply let them talk when they?re in the mood (which often results in ?I need to learn more??.)

Be enthusiastic about events and activities ? even something as simple as listening to birds in the trees or skipping rocks across a puddle.

Give them choices ? some control ? of what they?d like to do, and do it with them.

When they make a wrong choice, like not doing their homework, let them live with the consequences when necessary.

Connect their classroom learning to the real world ? expand on what they learn in school by giving them many different types of experiences that challenge them to learn new skills, but aren?t overwhelming in difficulty.

Help them feel competent as they learn new activities by encouraging ? rather than simply pressuring ? them to try again, maybe a different way.

Point out specific things they?ve accomplished ? simply saying ?good job? isn?t as helpful as praising the colors they?ve used on a map or in a drawing.

Teach them that failure is not permanent?.it?s simply a way of learning new things.