FALL IS HERE — or so it seems with the passing of Labor Day weekend and the arrival of cooler temperatures — and the pressure is already mounting. Vacations are largely over and those with school-age children are busier than ever.
“Back to school” brings with it a determination (at least by parents) to have things go smoothly. And while matters may start out well, there are many dynamics in the home and school environments that can trip things up. Some of those complications can also spill over into a parent’s workplace. So, how do we mitigate some of these factors, which negatively impact motivation?
On the positive side of the work-enjoyment learning equation is a son’s or daughter’s sense of contributing to the family’s functioning. On the one hand, the child has a job. This is work. Deadlines have to be met, projects completed, etc. On the other side, there is a great deal of joy in discovering new knowledge, developing relationships and succeeding at tasks.
Enduring success entails going off to school prepared, listening attentively, participating in classes, completing homework assignments on time, getting along with teachers and classmates, and meeting the challenges of difficult tests. This all adds up to a job — one that requires a special kind of motivation: a drive from within, also known as intrinsic motivation. It pertains to deriving satisfaction from the task at hand, the work itself.
Contrast this with going about one’s learning primarily to get some type of reward outside of the satisfaction inherent in completing a task or mastering new knowledge. This latter drive is called extrinsic motivation — primarily a pursuit of incentives or avoidance of punishments.
Parents and teachers hold these out in the belief that “carrots and sticks” are really what produce desired behaviors. The problem is not only is this approach not a long-term solution, it can shift many students over to an amotivated state. Compliance does not equal buy-in, and short-term success can lead to long-term failure. Extrinsic rewards and punishments manipulate: they do not motivate.
Here are a few ideas on maintaining a motivational environment in which your child will have an opportunity to derive satisfaction from his or her work, and be energized in the process.
1. Respect that schooling is the child’s job.
Mom and dad have their jobs and responsibilities, and kids have theirs. Take an active interest in each child’s progress. Encourage the young student, and express appreciation for the contributions children make in caring for one another. And be sure that the atmosphere is conducive to learning, e.g., a designated work area that is noise-, media-, and quarrel-free.
2. Resist manipulative rewards.
For many families and teachers (and bosses) the concept of motivation is tied to control, which stymies intrinsic motivation. Rewards, such as gold stars, create a pressured environment. Instead, a caring, communicative, encouraging, supportive environment will go a long way to ameliorate the pressure.
3. Assure open communication with the student.
Resist using controlling language, or aggressive questions, such as, “You should…” or “Why didn’t you…?” Better to present ideas in a non-pressuring way, e.g., “Have you considered…” or “What was your reasoning…?” Of course, tone of voice and facial expression amplify the effect.
4. Let your child have influence.
Keep looking for opportunities to allow your child to take the lead in how certain things are done, where appropriate. For example, perhaps he or she would prefer some down time when just getting home from school before starting homework assignments or let your child influence some decisions, such as, weekend activities for the family.
5. Do not speak poorly of teachers, other children or their families.
This is triangulation and creates an atmosphere of distrust and can undermine the opportunity for healthy relationships.
6. Address setbacks.
Teach children that a disappointing grade is not the end of the world. Encourage and coach them. Avoid excessive criticism. Help them to develop a plan going forward (e.g., a request for an extra credit project, different studying routines).
7. Be sure to keep an eye out for signs of lowered motivation.
Teachers often pass the pressure they receive from school administrators right along to their students, such as with excessive homework. That pressure from teachers, as well as from parents, violates the conditions needed to allow self-motivation to flourish. Help students to align expectations with reality. Sometimes that will mean crossing something off the list (e.g., an extracurricular activity, a time-consuming hobby, etc.). There are 24 hours in a day; help a child to see what is doable and what is not.
A self-motivating environment, whether it’s in school, at home, or in the workplace, produces happier, energized, more productive participants. A person who has influence over such groups will do well to support the ingredients found to cultivate intrinsic motivation.
Editor’s note: The headline of Paul Baard’s Aug. 19 column should have read “Three ways high tech monitoring can hurt motivation.”