Updated: Oct 29, 2019
We often underestimate the importance of motivation in learning, or sometimes even overlook it. When a child is not motivated to learn, even if he were compliant in sitting down for hours and hours with you, results might still be minimal and disproportionate to the amount of time spent.
There are two subgroups of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. Ultimately, intrinsic motivation takes a longer time to develop, but is the ideal. It refers to one being motivated by their own interest and curiosity to find out more and getting that sense of accomplishment just from task completion alone. Meanwhile, while a child still may not be intrinsically motivated to learn, we can use extrinsic motivation such as reinforcers to motivate the child.
To understand the importance of motivation, you can imagine anyone learning to play their favourite pop songs on the piano versus learning to play major and minor scales, and imagine how much faster they would learn to play piano pieces that they like.
Now that we are aware of the importance of motivation, let’s talk about how we can motivate a child! Motivation encompasses many things: from curiosity and interest to social bonds.
Firstly, we have to pair tasks with reinforcers. Reinforcers refer to things that the child likes, and pairing it with the task helps them form positive associations with it. Make sure that the reinforcers are accessible only through the therapist, so as to maintain the value of it. If the child has easy to access to all these reinforcers, the value will soon decrease when it becomes boring to them. You’ll find a good reinforcer really helpful when introducing a new activity that you want the child to get started on.
Secondly, it’s always good to make a session fun. If you can’t think of any ways to make work fun, at least try to make it an enjoyable event for the child. Multiple studies have proven that learning, or memory retention is state-dependent. This means that we form memories depending on whatever our mental state or emotions are at that point in time. If a child is forced to do his work and does it while full of reluctance and grumpiness, it would be a lot more difficult for him to absorb the information. In short, we try not to let them associate work with the feeling of dread.
Remember that you can always use their interests to your advantage! For example if the child likes drawing, you can use it to help him with learning facial expression. If she likes looking at pretty fonts, you can use that to help her build her vocabulary.
Last but not least, a less visible but important motivator is social approval. This requires a positive relationship between the therapist (or parents) and the child. Building rapport with the child is crucial because once a child learns to form close relationships, we can use that as a strong motivating factor even without tangible reinforcers like toys or food, in which its strength may die when the child grows out of it. This brings us closer to intrinsic motivation. Children who seek social approval will have the motivation to be involved in the activity you want to work with, and will want to do their best since they can feel when you’re proud of them and praise them. We can see that motivation may not only be by tangible rewards, but also when a child has the desire for social approval from someone that they have an attachment to.
If you encounter difficulties when trying to teaching your child something, always make a mental note to observe what motivates him and use that to help him.