The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made rich.  Proverbs 13: 4

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

How do we motivate our kids to want to grow their skills and abilities?

Every parent wants their kids to have initiative and to be intrinsically motivated.  We want them to master math concepts and to write well.  We want them to perfect their basketball shot or swim stroke. We want them to reach their God-given potential.   “Carrots and sticks” (last week’s blog) can server to improve behavior in the short term- and even have some redeeming value- but for the most part they  do not foster lasting motivation.
I recently read about a theory on motivation, developed in the 1950’s by Frederick Herzberg, which he described in his book, The Motivation to Work. An interesting point about his theory (which is still used extensively in the work place today) is that a key to fostering motivation in employees is first and foremost to provide sufficient challenge that fully utilized their abilities. According to Herzberg, intrinsic motivation  is best fostered by assigning tasks that continued to fully utilize the employees skills and abilities – to stretch and challenge them – and not from “carrots and sticks.” Furthermore he discovered that the employees enjoyed growing and advancing and lost motivation to do well when they were not tasked in ways that caused them to be stretched.
While Herzberg’s theory was developed from research conducted on individuals in the workplace, I believe it holds some great insights for students as well. (Isn’t it the student’s job to do well in school and to grow their individual talents and abilities?)

Following are some tips on how parents and educators can apply this theory to students:

  1. Set and trust them to meet high expectations, making sure they are challenged and being stretched to reach their potential.
  2. Be vigilant to not allow lazy habits or distractions to take over. Most students actually want to do a good job and desire greater responsibility but they fall prey to developing habits that set them on the course to becoming unmotivated.  A lazy student will not grow, which serves to kill motivation. It’s a “slippery slope.”
  3. Lead your students by values and not rules. Teach them the value in diligence;  in persistence;  in excellence; in honest evaluation. External control and detailed rules say “I need to control you because I don’t trust your competence.”  Students live down to an environment in which they are not empowered to grow and simply told what to do , losing the desire to apply their own extra initiative.
  4. Give your students freedom to the greatest possible extent – so that they can grow and learn both from success and failure.  Set clear expectation and establish safe boundaries but within that framework, let them manage themselves and handle their own problems.
  5. Individualize.  Students are personal beings by nature and do not fit into a highly standardized, impersonal ideal. Parents and teachers should strive to recognize the student’s unique abilities and guide them toward the unleashing of their individual talents and skills.
  6. Train them to self evaluate their own efforts and behavior. We are too quick to both praise and criticize student performance, removing from the kids the most influential  tool they possess: self evaluation. Whether you are addressing their performance on an essay or test, on the basketball court or in the dance studio, before stating your opinion, ask them theirs first.  Then ask how they feel about their performance.  Ask them if they are pleased with their effort and what they plan to do differently next time. Ask- ask- askDon’t tell-tell-tell. It will give you an entry point from which to discuss constructively and it will help them evaluate how they are honestly doing and what they are to do to progress.
  7. Use extrinsic rewards sparingly– they do have a place. For example, they are helpful when encouraging good group behavior because they provide immediate feedback on appropriate behavior.    They are also helpful in encouraging rote memorization of facts and knowledge – but can become a distraction when students begin to beg for the reward before they are even assigned the task.
  8. Encourage the decision to just try.  Often kids fail to begin.  They may be afraid of failure or lack the skills to be successful so they simply don’t start.  Growth happens over time by individual decisions to just start trying.  Teach them that “every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”