Why I don’t believe that motivation is irrelevant to success

Research has been published recently which claims that motivation is irrelevant to results in schools. They even suggest that as motivation goes down in high performing countries like Korea then results go up. The danger here is the failure to look for the emotional fallout which may affect young people who are under high pressure and who work because of fear of failure. Shame is not a good substitute for engagement and motivation.  One young person writes here about his experience of high pressure schooling in the UK. We should beware of these single factor studies being over interpreted to explain a broader picture. developing life long learners is not driven by fear or peer pressure.


Motivated people get results there’s no doubt about that.   Motivation counts for more than ability because persistence,  effort and problem solving are key skills to overcome challenge and stay focused on your goals.  Angela Duckworth’s research into grit and success shows us that this counts for more than school grades or IQ

So where does motivation come from and can you help children to become motivated?  The short answer is yes you can help children become self starters and here are 7 strategies to help  fire up your child’s enthusiasm.  While schools  are closed and children are on holiday is a great time to reflect on and review how you can help your child become self motivated.

1. Don’t rely on rewards if you want to encourage self motivated behaviour. Use rewards sparingly and only for dull tasks which have no intrinsic merit but which are essential to hone useful skills.  Multiplication tables, music scales that sort of thing.  If you can find a fun way to do something instead, then that will work better.  There is evidence that rewards can impair performance, where skill and creativity are required, because it makes the race to the finish more important than the process involved.  So although rewards seem a good idea and useful when strong enticement is needed they can be counter productive.

Message Stones2. Encourage free play. Not just for young children but for teenagers too. Playfulness is exploratory and experimental and encourages independent thinking. A lot is happening when children are playing spontaneously and creatively with no rules and no pressure.  Useful skills are developed and refined like planning, organisation, concentration, creativity and problem solving.  Play which is free of rules and has no imposed structure encourages self reliance and the opportunity to become totally immersed in the task.  This gives a child the experience of flow.  Flow is the result of being totally focused and in control with the knowledge that you have the skills you need to make something happen.  Power, competence and the experience of success is a heady mixture which makes self motivation an exciting experience. The child is learning and making things happen.  Free play develops a child’s confidence and their competence at the same time.  So play is a vital and powerful experience which really can’t be replaced by television or electronic games.  I recommend that children have at least an hour a day to call their own.

3. Praise effort not results.  If you want children to appreciate the importance of being focused and determined then don’t put the emphasis on results alone.  When something is a little bit difficult but acknowledged for effort then the chances are that it will hold a child’s attention while they search for a solution.

file91212832565174. Work with a child’s strengths.  Encouraging children to use skills which are naturally interesting to them helps children to learn about themselves and their unique strengths.  Young children learn a great deal about themselves through their creative strengths whether this is art, music, or dance.  A child who is musical will naturally find time and opportunities to listen, sing or play. The experience of learn to organise and manage an activity you are passionate about teaches skills which can then transfer to other areas.

5. Encourage a growth mindset when children believe that learning is like a muscle which strengthens with practice they are more likely to experiment and take risks with learning.  Mistakes are accepted as part of the process not feared as a sign that you have reached the limits of your ability.

file0008868110576. Plant golden seeds a motivated child needs to be free to explore and experiment,  some things will capture their imagination and attention while other experiences are no more than a passing phase.  Being a Helicopter or Tiger parent will over power your child and leave them little room to learn about themselves.  Of course you do want your child to know that you are interested and are appreciative of what they are doing.  The balance is to offer observations positively but not intrusively.  Think of yourself as holding a mirror up to your child so they gain self knowledge from your comments.

7. Be mindful and focus on the present.  Children change and grow and their interests come and go too.  It is tempting to let your mind wander about whether they will become a great scientist and what would help them do that so and before you know what has happened you are distracted from the present experience.  Self motivated people do not always have a grand design or a 5 year plan,  they do something because they love it and want to see where it takes them.  Let your child set out on that journey.

Self motivation is a delicate process which starts with using your strengths and can grow and expand as your sense of competence becomes broader. As the saying goes: “If you think you can do it you probably will”  Encourage positive thinking and nurture self belief in as many small ways as you can.

In my latest book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish  you can find out more about how to help children become confident and self motivated.


About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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2 Responses to Why I don’t believe that motivation is irrelevant to success

  1. Multiplication tables have no intrinsic merit? What tosh!

    • hooperj says:

      Multiplication tables are a means to an end surely? Most children find them dull, although one lovely teaching assistant used a multiplication rap with those who were struggling to memorise by rote which they did enjoy.

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