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Children will insist on being different: Recognising individuality helps develop self motivation

Brian Ó Maoileoin, Primary School Principal, Dover Campus
19 June 2017

Recently, I was asked to write a ‘top tip’ on how to increase self motivation in young children for KidsNation, an online magazine produced in Australia. I was permitted only 140 words and so I gave them this, which was something I thought might be relevant to all children:

“When you think about it, children are motivated all the time: if children are sitting in class or lolling about the house doing nothing, something is motivating them to do nothing. One reason can be fear of failure—if I don’t try, I can’t fail. The interesting thing is that success in one area transfers confidence to others—this is why a well-rounded, holistic education is so important to us here. Managing, after several failed attempts, to negotiate the high ropes course, will make a student feel puffed up with success. They still feel like that when they walk into their Maths class. Top tip for increasing self-motivation in children? Don’t give into the understandable desire to smooth the path for your child. Give them plenty of opportunity to fail by themselves and to succeed by themselves.” KidsNation, March/April 2017

But of course there is a fundamental problem with giving the kind of generic advice that a small word limit permits and it is this: children will insist on being different. Margaret Mead once said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” This plurality of uniqueness makes it difficult to offer up one specific piece of advice and expect it to be a generally useful panacea.

Although I believe what I wrote because I have seen it happen, the example I provided has one very obvious corollary: surely if the child repeatedly fails to negotiate the high ropes course, then won’t that sense of failure also accompany them into their next lesson?

In my reading on this area, a lot is made of the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. A criminally rudimentary summary—intrinsic is good because it comes from the child’s own interests. That also makes it hard because teachers and parents have to then help them discover what those interests are. This can be a long and sometimes costly exercise. Extrinsic motivators are things like rewards, punishments, consequences and praise. While these are presented as less good, there is also, at times, a solid place for them. It is amazing how much more neatly a child will write if they think they will get a sticker!

However, of all the advice I have read on the topic, I have found Richard Lavoie’s (1) thinking to be very accessible. And so, rather than offering any further wisdom of my own, I will devote my time on this page to summarising his thoughts.

What I like about Rick Lavoie is that he addresses the fact that there are motivators that work for some children that will not work at all for others. This is also true of adults of course, and anyone who has ever attended a workshop will recognise this. Some adults get tremendous energy and enjoyment from those get-to-know-you ice-breaker games that facilitators sometimes run, whereas others (and these latter folk I personally categorise as ‘normal people’) would happily jam a pen in their eye rather than participate.

Lavoie identifies eight ‘types’ of children in a list of ‘motivational drivers’. Most likely you will recognise your own child (and possibly yourself) as belonging chiefly to one or two of them but with a few traits from the others thrown in at times. These traits are not fixed and, as children navigate their path of self-discovery, they experiment with them in order to discover who they are and to understand who they could become.

Gregarious children love being in a crowd and do not tend to enjoy independent, solitary projects. This can manifest itself positively in things like openness and friendliness or negatively in terms of challenging authority, for example. This child is typically motivated by being in collaborative learning projects or committees and needs to be around people. Of course, challenging authority is also a positive and desirable trait in a UWCSEA student but we sometimes need to illustrate to children how challenge can be presented in productive, polite ways.

Autonomous children thrive on independent projects and like to be given opportunities to make their own decisions. They get inspiration from solitary work and like to know that they achieved success largely as a result of their own efforts.

Status-driven children are very concerned about how they are perceived and their self esteem is very much determined by what other people think. It can be incredibly easy to embarrass them and parents and teachers need to be acutely aware of the effect the most innocuous comment can have on such children. Most children go through this status-driven phase at some point in their lives and while it is especially associated with adolescence, it is not confined to that age group.

Inquisitive children are rarely satisfied by the knowledge with which they are presented and want to get to the reasons behind everything. Their curiosity is not limited to their own areas of interest or expertise and they are motivated by research projects and inquiry.

Aggressive children. For me, this label misrepresents what Lavoie himself means by it because his description of it suggests nothing more than assertiveness to me. So the assertive child likes to be heard and likes to confront injustice or point out inconsistencies. These children need opportunities for debate and must be taught how to channel their arguments in structured and courteous ways. They are motivated by opportunities for discussion on the carpet, for example, and it can be very hard to motivate them to stop talking!

Whereas some children are motivated by the work they are doing just in and of itself, recognition-driven children typically thrive on getting credit and acknowledgement for their work. The task they have completed is not sufficient to satisfy them and they want their brief moment in the sun. While they may be typically motivated by prizes and stickers, public praise will motivate some and even a quiet word of acknowledgment can be enough to energise these students.

Affiliation-driven children get their motivation from belonging to teams, organisations, clubs. This can have both positive and negative effects. These children are often the ones who set up little secret clubs within the class to which specific other children are denied entry but they are also the ones who want to be involved in every service group and sports team. Their affiliation to the school is important to them and they will be the first in the queue to get their Swim Team sweatshirt and their branded hats. In the playground, these are often the ones who come up to me periodically checking that I know their name!

Finally, power-driven children are motivated by having some control and influence and they love it when they are provided opportunities for personal responsibility or authority. This can be channelled very positively obviously but can also have a negative outlet through disruptive behaviour and challenge to the authority of others. These students tend to respond very well to opportunities to chair committees or to lead delegations to my office to ask for changes to routines or for money to purchase a sofa for their classroom.

As is ever the case, there is no magic cure-all strategy that fits every child in education. The diversity of background, culture and personality, which we value so much at UWCSEA, brings with it a need to think differently about each child and to do everything we can to get to know them and discover what makes them tick.

1. Lavoie, Richard. The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child. 2007. Touchstone Books.