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Emotional Competence Part 4: The Importance of Self-Motivation

People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily.

Zig Ziglar -Motivational author and speaker


By encouraging and supporting decision-making, empathising and providing
opportunities for children, the key person helps them grow emotionally, so
they are able to respond to successes and challenges.

Birth to Three Matters


Daniel Goleman defines the third aspect of emotional intelligence as being ‘self-motivation. Motivation is, of course, essential for success in just about any aspect of life. Without the motivation to learn or to succeed, a child will probably achieve very little. Fortunately, children are born with an inherent drive to explore – just ask any mother who has tried to keep her one-year-old out of the kitchen cupboards! A toddler will return to a forbidden activity again and again, to explore, to discover, and to learn. Self-motivation is inbuilt and instinctive, and can be a child’s greatest lifelong learning tool.


Jade’s mother can easily recall Jade’s first word, which was ‘me’:


Jade’s first word was ‘me’, which she said very loudly and very, very assertively! Jade wanted to be able to do everything herself, and soon ‘me’ became ‘me-self’. Sometimes it seemed that ‘me-self’ was the only word I heard, all day long. Jade wanted to dress herself, bath herself, feed herself, and do all the household chores herself. She wanted to be able to do everything that her older brother could do – and more!

I came to realise that the drive to be self-sufficient was going to be a wonderful asset to Jade as she grows up, although it can still be very tiring dealing with her fierce determination to learn. Jade is now seven, and is still as motivated as she was as a toddler.

Like Jade, most young children are so motivated to learn by exploring their environment and asking questions that they can drive the adults around them to distraction! As one child-minder said, “Sometimes, I just wish that for one or two minutes, I had a remote control with a ‘pause’ button so that I could take a breath and gather my thoughts.” Our challenge with most children is therefore not to help them to develop self-motivation. Instead, it is to ensure that they maintain this motivation as they pass through the foundation stage and on into the primary years. Children who are self-motivated do not need to be ‘taught’. They simply need knowledgeable, imaginative, creative, responsive and enthusiastic adults to facilitate their learning.


One of our most important tasks is to create an environment that fosters the immense power of self-motivation. There are many ways to do this. We can plan our curriculum and activities to be exciting and stimulating and to give children every chance of success. We can notice, comment and reinforce positive, self-motivated behaviours. We can be explicit about what it means to be motivated. We can create the sort of high-energy environment in which children are naturally self-motivated learners. We can match the level of challenge of activities to be exactly right, so that they stretch children without daunting them. We can provide activities that are open-ended and do not always require a ‘right’ answer. We can talk about people who are motivated, and we can use stories to spark enthusiasm for learning and to explore the nature of motivation itself. We can work hard to ensure that the children in our care do not lose the motivation to learn that was, in fact, their birthright.


Sadly, however, many children become less self-motivated as they get older and more dependent upon extrinsic motivators and rewards such as stickers, smiley faces, or excessive praise. They lose the drive to learn simply for the pleasure of learning, and they begin to seek adult approval for completing everyday tasks. When a child is not motivated, he will not only limit his own learning, but he will probably negatively affect others in the group. Some children become de-motivated in general, but it is more common for a child to become de-motivated in one or two specific areas, usually due to some poor experience or perceived failure. An article in the Times Educational Supplement recently highlighted how it can become a ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’ that some primary aged children find maths difficult:

Ann Dowker, an Oxford university researcher, said: “It is not the case that a large number of children are simply bad at maths and that nothing can be done about it.” Dr Dowker found children who had difficulties in maths often struggled only with one or two aspects. But by being labelled, or labelling themselves, as “bad at maths” they could end up finding all maths hard.

Children are astute, and easily pick up implicit messages about their own abilities and performance. This applies to groups – such as the notion that ‘girls are not as good at science as boys’, as well as to individuals – such as ‘Jon is not very good at PE, but it doesn’t matter because he’s a good sport about it.’ Children need to be put in a position to succeed, and they need to hear positive language about everybody’s ability to tackle tasks. Qualifying negative feedback, however tactfully, by giving a ‘condolence prize’ - such as Jon being a ‘good sport’- can do lifelong damage to children. Instead, we can give positive feedback about the child’s actual performance, for example, ‘Jon is very accurate when dribbling a soccer ball. He takes very gentle, careful kicks.’ The feedback can then be tied to a challenge for practice and improvement, such as, ‘Let’s see who can dribble the ball through the cones if we move them closer together.’ Of course, it is natural that some children are more talented in some areas than others, but all children have talents and strengths that need to be acknowledged. We need to take care that we give all children positive feedback about their strengths along with practical help to overcome weaknesses, whilst avoiding the temptation to give blanket, meaningless ‘stroking’ through praise and rewards.

Ironically, one of the greatest de-motivators in our culture is the assumption that we need to go overboard on rewarding children in order to ‘keep them motivated’. In his ground-breaking book, Punished by Rewards – the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise and other Bribes, author Alfie Kohn talks about the way that many children lose their natural motivation to learn as they progress through school. He states that:

there is nothing natural about these changes. They cannot be written off as an archetypal loss of innocence, an inevitable developmental progression. Rather, if children’s enthusiasm is smothered, it is a direct result of something that happens in our schools. [ii]

Kohn goes on to question every aspect of ‘reward’ for children who already show good learning attitudes. Most early years practitioners would find nothing very controversial in Kohn’s assertion that systems like reward charts, stars, stickers and grades are unnecessary, because children already have a natural drive to learn. But it may take many of us by surprise is that Kohn also views praise and verbal ‘rewards’ as counter-productive:


Praising children for the work they do may discourage self-directed learning, since it is our verbal rewards, and not love of what they are doing, that drive them.

What we should be doing instead of praising is giving clear and educative feedback. Consider the difference between Response A: “That’s a beautiful painting - you’re a very clever girl,” and Response B: “Those are interesting colours. Which ones do you like best?” The difference for the child is that from Response A, she learns that the value of her painting is dependent upon the opinion of the adult, but following Response B, she can engage in meaningful discussion on her terms, about her work. She can retain her intrinsic motivation because it is respected, not undermined, by the adult.

But sadly, for every group of highly-motivated preschoolers, there is likely to be one child who has for some reason lost that inherent drive to learn. But we should still think hard before we ask the question, “How do I motivate this child?” It is not possible to ‘motivate’ somebody else! Motivating is not something that comes from outside – it cannot be ‘done’ to people. Motivation has to come from within. Instead, we need to try to alter a child’s learning behaviour in order to help him to create new habits. If we alter specific behaviours, we can often rekindle the enthusiasm for learning. For some children, a stimulating environment and the right balance of encouragement and support will suffice. But for others, the damage may be too great and it may be necessary to introduce an explicit reward programme, such as stickers for completing tasks, charts to show when tasks are undertaken, or explicit praise and acknowledgement for showing positive attitudes.

Unmotivated and under-confident children often respond well to these reward systems, but they should still be used with extreme caution. The aim should not be to persuade Maya to sit on the mat at story time in order to gain a sticker for her chart. The aim should be to persuade Maya to sit on the mat at story time in order to enjoy listening to a story! This is a subtle difference that needs to be kept in mind as we design any behaviour management strategy. If an explicit reward system is needed for a child, at its conception a plan should be made for its withdrawal. It should only be seen as a very temporary measure to ‘kick-start’ a new behaviour. The aim should be for the programme to instill the behaviour, and for the child to develop the motivation.

In an ideal world, no sticker chart or incentive programme would ever be needed for any child – or even for adults in the workplace. Everybody would be motivated and driven to work hard, to learn more and to improve upon performance. Realistically though, by adulthood or even by the teenage years, for many people that drive has been quashed. But early years practitioners usually get to work with people before this natural enthusiasm for the world and its wonder has been diminished. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to keep in touch with our own sense of awe and enthusiasm for lifelong learning. On the other hand, it gives us an incredible responsibility for the future generations who pass through our settings. This is not a responsibility we can afford to take too lightly. The evidence shows that many children are going to lose this enthusiasm within a few years of leaving the early years setting. So, as we watch Jackson engrossed in the finger paints or Annie meticulously straightening the wooden brick at the top of her tower, it would pay us to ask ourselves what we are doing to ensure that these children maintain their self-motivation for learning. What are we doing to strengthen it and ensure that they take it with them into the next stage of their school lives?

In the next article in this series I will move on to consider how we can help children to learn to handle relationships with others.


Exclusively for the Foundation Stage Forum - International copyright Nicola Call © September 2004. All rights reserved



Weak Label Sticks, Times Educational Supplement, July 2nd 2004, page 6


[ii] Alfie Kohn, ‘Punished by Rewards – the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise and other bribes’, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1993


Nicola Call
Nicola Call is author of The ALPS Approach and The Thinking Child. She is currently working on The Can-Do Club, a series of children's books with accompanying activities for the promotion of emotional competence. More information about Nicola's work can be found at her websites at acceleratedlearning.co.uk and www.candoclub.com

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