Intrinsic motivation versus manufactured motivation

Like many of us, I passionately believe that children need and deserve to feel secure that they will overall be treated with care and compassion in their learning environment.  Most teachers I work with value maintaining care and compassion in their classrooms.  They know the value of fostering the child’s intrinsic motivation. They truly want children to feel secure and enjoy their learning, yet struggle to hold this when facing the challenges of disruptive, chaotic, unfocused or even aggressive behaviour.  Most of us hopefully have experienced a steady movement in a positive direction in valuing the child’s emotional and social development, not just academic achievements, in recent years and decades. We want children to be not only treated with care and compassion, but to also learn through witnessing their fellow students and indeed their teachers also being treated with care and compassion.

Is there room for us, as parents, teachers and professionals caring for children, to place an even higher value on co-creating more caring and compassionate learning environments?  We know how these troublesome kids were dealt with when we went to school, yet knowing what isn’t ok is only the start.  Often there is a pendulum swing away from punishments resulting in a more passive permissive approach where teachers avoid engaging with certain tricky issues and instead encourage the kids to sort it out amongst themselves.  Yet, most of the time children need help managing their upsets, developing communication skills and generally figuring out what they can do differently.

Disruptive behaviour can provide rich learning opportunities.  Whether dealing with kids being disruptive, not engaging in their work or any number of challenges, teachers are likely to find more constructive solutions and resolutions when seeking to identify the unmet needs of the children.  It’s not just about stopping the kids from doing what they shouldn’t do and making them focus on their learning.  Much of the learning, in fact lies in constructively facing the emotional and social challenges that are abundant amongst any group of children.  Teachers who have a high value of the rich learning children gain when helped through these emotional and social challenges are likely to extend more patience in dealing with the “disruptions”.  And the more confident and skilled they are in dealing with the social and emotional challenges, the easier it is for the teacher to manage their own stress levels that get triggered when dealing with stressed upset children.

It helps when teachers or parents at home are consistently asking themselves if their responses to the problems are modelling effective problem solving and communication skills for the children to themselves use in their daily challenges.  If the teacher blames and shames, that’s the culture that is established and hence, expecting better from the children will lead to endless frustration.  If the teacher on the other hand, can maintain respectful, warm and compassionate communication, even when expressing boundaries, this offers powerful modelling for the children.  It helps when the adult is curious and invites the child to be curious about what might work better.  It helps when the adult listens to problems with genuine care and interest.  Teachers and parents at home can struggle to give the time to engage with more care, curiosity and presence, yet it’s time invested that generally results in greater harmony and ultimately less of the disruptive behaviours.

Author Haim Ginott’s famous quote, written decades ago, continues to provide sobering but wise advice:  “As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

The more a student has a sense of their fellow students and teachers having care and compassion for them, this not only sets the child up for success, but is an essential element to them thriving in that environment.  When the child feels care and compassion from those around them, it becomes much easier for the child to maintain their dignity and stay in a more positive and indeed compassionate relationship with their self.  Learning involves a lot of striving, stumbling and indeed failing before we achieve each goal.  To maintain the spirit of compassionately viewing ourselves as being in the process of working towards achieving our goals, instead of having not yet succeeded or failing to meet our goals, compassion for self is needed.  Yet for teachers to have the generous warmth of heart to hold compassion for their students even when they’re not on target to achieve their goals or indeed disrupting others, what would the teacher need?  Surely this sounds too idealistic, unrealistic and frankly not achievable for the teacher whose struggling to keep up with the endless tasks and challenges of their days?  Teachers also need their colleagues and the administration to treat them with care and compassion for them to be set up to succeed.

Is the learning environment that you or your children have engaged in an environment the adults and the children experience enough care and compassion?  What changes when they do experience care and compassion for their struggles and their striving?  How are they impacted when there’s a serious lack of compassion for their struggles and their striving?  What might be needed to release teachers and students alike from the endless stress cycles and power struggles?  Again, there are no easy or simple solutions, but I strongly believe that these are important questions that we need to be asking to keep moving in the right direction.  Even opening these questions can bring more care and compassion to a tense situation.

Our children truly are our future.  And how we treat our children truly determines the world we’re co-creating for the future.  We all need to be brave advocates of their needs even when it means challenging the status quo!

The power of self-motivation.  We humans really do have an outstanding endless desire to follow our curiosity and to keep learning.  Search engine technology has exploded to meet the insatiable needs of internet users to find answers to their questions, to compare different answers from different sources, to compare what they find with what they were guessing to be possible answers to their questions.  We are driven by our values and desires to achieve and then meeting all the needs that lead to achieving our goals.  We are driven to achieve greater confidence and competence in the areas that engage us the most.  We are driven to achieve greater peace of mind and peace of heart and innately know that to achieve these goals, we need to keep conquering that which holds us back.

The teacher’s role.  Whether it’s learning to make and fix physical things, or overcoming limiting core beliefs, we are driven to seek ideas and experience of those who have walked a similar path and may have some wisdom to help us achieve our goals.  Hence, the age-old relationship between the teacher and student.  The teacher guides the student on a similar path that the teacher has walked.  But what truly is the role of the guide or teacher?  Is it to evaluate, criticize and impose consequences for failure to meet goals?  Or is it to be a supportive guide and coach to the student as they struggle and strive to achieve the goals that the student themselves genuinely values? It’s incredible what we humans put ourselves through in our valiant efforts to achieve the prized outcomes of meeting our goals.  In our family, we recently went through a phase of watching videos by people who have undertaken incredibly challenging endurance events, from adventure racing and rock climbing to solo treks for weeks on end in the great outdoors.  And of course, every family is aware of the endurance challenges of bringing a child into the world and raising them!  We humans often willingly take on challenges that require incredible endurance and pain that would be considered cruel and abusive if it was imposed by another.  We gain the energy, the grit and the motivation to endure by consistently keeping our minds set on the end goals we desire to achieve with all our heart and mite.

Intrinsic motivation.  With this spirit of persistence to endure strife and suffering to achieve one’s goals, let’s bring our minds to our children. How hard does the child work in their mission to learn to crawl, to walk, to talk.  Every game they enjoy playing involves developing skills and overcoming obstacles.  Learning to ride a bike or swing on a swing or swim or conquer those monkey bars all require endless hours of trying, trying and trying again until each incremental next step is achieved.  When the child has a self-generated intrinsic motivation to conquer a skill, it’s astounding how much energy and focus they draw on to maintain the required persistence.

Now, what about learning to hold a pencil and write, learning to read, learning to add and subtract.  Are children equally driven by this same spirit of adventure, this same burning desire to achieve the outcome that consumes them with a similar intensity as that desire to conquer the monkey bars, ride their bike or that skateboard trick?  Or would some children feel released and super enthusiastic to run outside and get back to the monkey bars or whatever they’re passionate about as soon as the teacher or parent releases them from their “learning tasks”?

Manufactured motivation. Teachers and parents know that many, if not most, children are not being driven by intrinsic motivation to achieve their school tasks.  But the link isn’t always made that this results in a lack of passionate enthusiasm and hence grit and persistence to apply to their tasks.  The lack of intrinsic motivation puts the teacher and student alike in a very difficult situation.  The child knows the adult wants them to not only achieve their tasks, and to do so enthusiastically.  The child doesn’t feel enthusiastic.  The adult has to somehow keep figuring out how to manufacture the motivation needed to keep the child on task.  And this is where it’s all too tempting to rely on motivating children through fear and desire, be it the desire to be in the top 30% of the class when tested or the fear of embarrassment and possible criticism of being in the bottom 30%.

Is there another way?  What if the child achieving their learning goals and tasks could happen in a way that the child was following their intrinsic motivations to conquer skills and achieve goals that they have themselves set and are excited about?  How can this be achieved in a classroom with a large group of children with only one teacher guiding and supporting them?  How can this be achieved in homes?
There are many schools around the country and around the world that have been highly focused on creating compassionate and creative learning environments who have much for us to learn from.  How can teachers engage children in ways that meet more of the child’s needs?  Hence avoiding the vast majority of disruptive behaviours that result from children feeling trapped, stressed and coerced.

Children are naturally more motivated when tasks are fun.  They’re much more motivated to engage with adults when they’re warm, kind, fun, funny, supportive, flexible and compassionate.  Children learn best when they feel safe, secure and connected.  Without the secure connection, children are often in the stress response, and unable to think clearly.

Children are naturally much more motivated when they feel safe to share their thoughts and feel valued for their contributions.  Value expressed through a star on a star chart or a better result in a test is a poor substitute for a child feeling genuinely seen, heard and valued.  Children are more motivated to keep overcoming obstacles when they feel cared for and compassion expressed for their struggles and their striving.  Children are much more motivated when physical movement is involved.  Children are more motivated when they can engage or soothe their senses in a way that’s enjoyable.  Nature naturally provides for so many of the child’s needs.  Children’s brains light up when their curiosity is evoked.  Our children and teachers alike deserve for their days to be filled with the happiness that warm and harmonious relationships bring.

Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parenting Instructor and coach, public speaker, human rights advocate, writer and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute.  Check out her articles, Peaceful Parenting eCourses, forums and one year Peaceful Parenting Instructor Training through this website or join over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent.

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