BY: Lisa Easterbrooks
During COVID-19, I’ve been struggling with motivation with my transition to working from home. My eight-year-old daughter has also struggled with completing schoolwork at home. It’s been a stressful time for parents and children whose routines have been turned upside-down. It has made me think a great deal about motivation. How do we motivate ourselves? And how do we motivate our children in these uncertain times?
In “normal” times, students around the world stress themselves out to receive good grades at school. Now educators are wrestling with whether to give grades. Some feel grades should not be given during at-home learning, while others feel grades are important to keep children motivated to learn and hold them accountable.
How Effective are Grades?
A growing body of research indicates that grades actually produce the opposite effect than intended. Researcher Susan Harter tested sixth graders on anagrams, a set of letters that are rearranged to form words. Harter gave the children three sets of letters – one easy, one medium, and one hard. She found that most children chose to do the harder puzzles, and were happiest when completing the harder puzzles. Harter then told a new group of 6th graders that they would be graded on the assignment as part of a school exercise. Children in this group chose easier puzzles, showed less pleasure while completing the task, and verbalized higher levels of anxiety.
“Grades can take an activity that we enjoy and turn them into a source of dread.”
–Laurie Santos, The Happiness Lab Podcast
Why is this? Grades are a form of external rewards. Teachers and parents may easily get into the habit of using external rewards because they are easy, quick and familiar. Sometimes they work really well to change behavior in the short term. These types of rewards work so well for some students, in fact, that they may get addicted to them, often leading to high levels of anxiety or distress when they don’t receive high marks. The long-term costs can include the loss of our innate love of learning. Similarly, external rewards can apply to our work lives as well.
So, if grades are counter-productive, how do you encourage motivation to learn in our children and young people?
Three factors for motivation
Experts agree there are three key factors that can encourage internal motivation: mastery, autonomy, and connection. In our work at Food for the Hungry, as an international humanitarian aid organization that puts children at the center of our work, we incorporate these factors when working with parents and caregivers of small children. We talk about the need to feel “valued, effective, and connected” to build internal motivation. These lessons are global need:
Everyone wants to be able to direct their lives, including children. Autonomy leads to engagement in the learning process by offering children choices — within acceptable limits — over how they spend their learning time. For example, if children choose when to read and what they read, they are more likely to enjoy doing so.
We all like to get better at doing things. We want to nurture the activities our children find internally rewarding. Be sure to point out the progress your child has made over time. “I noticed that last week you were really struggling with those multiplication problems, but now after lots of practice, you seem to really understand them.”
This is the universal desire to feel connected to each other and find meaning from our work. Parents will want to participate with your child in the learning process (when you can!) Do a fun science experiment at home together. Read books together. Bring math into the kitchen while cooking. Here are some ideas for family learning.
The role of praise
You might wonder: What about praise? Should we praise our children when they accomplish a task? Calling a young person talented or smart is an extrinsic motivator and the reward is the implied favorable comparison with other young people. Instead, try asking children what they thought they did well, and what they could do to improve with their work. Talk about the effort a child put into his/her work. In contrast to the occasional “well done” or “good job”, this kind of deeper engagement can be more impactful. Children who are taught to value effort over results are more likely to keep trying when faced with challenges.
Excessive praise can also promote insecurity, leading children to believe they are only valued to the degree they please the adults in their lives. Helping children learn to form their own judgments helps to develop critical thinking, one of the most difficult and important skills to teach.
A time of challenge and learning.
No doubt this has been a time of learning for children…and us parents! It’s been challenging but it really is true — in every challenge lies opportunity. For most parents, we send our kids off to where they hopefully get their educational needs met. This time at home has offered a new way to connect to and encourage their learning, emotions, creativity, and motivation.
Now that most schools in the U.S. have closed for the academic year, kids and parents are relaxing a bit for the summer. Some are doing summer learning to mitigate the disrupted school year. Many school districts are preparing for modified schedules in the fall with the real possibility that a few days of the week might continue to be distance learning.
As we reflect on this last highly unusual months, let’s ask ourselves what we have learned about our children’s learning and continue to nurture that during the summer months through autonomy, mastery and connection.
Want to learn more about what motivates us? Check out this one-of-a-kind video animation:
Lisa Easterbrooks leads the Education Unit for Food for the Hungry. Lisa is an education and literacy specialist with 16 years of experience in designing and implementing projects focused on teacher professional development, early grade reading, curriculum development, and educational equity.
The views expressed are those of the author.