We all want to raise self-motivated children. Not only because it might lead to good grades in school, but because it’s an important factor for success later in life. Helping children have a passion to develop their knowledge is a great virtue. When a child has a desire to learn, they understand more and remember the information for a longer period of time, and, not only that, they are more persistent and eager to do challenging work! Ideally, we’d all want our kids to be that way: someone that focuses on learning, rather than grades; someone that looks to improve and not just prove she is smart; someone who enjoys the journey of learning.
In general, there are two types of goal orientations that people adopt: mastery and performance. Mastery orientation centers on learning and improvement, while performance orientation focuses on showing competence against others. Psychologists have found that having a mastery orientation carries the most benefits -some of its positive qualities include: persistence, a desire to learn, and seeking out challenges to further improve.
But how can children have this type of mindset -one that focuses on high commitment and eagerness in learning, as well as being resilient when they fail?
It turns out parents have the key; they have great influence on a child’s willingness to learn. However, they don’t always know how to provide appropriate encouragement. In their book Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, Dr. Deborah Stipek, internationally recognized scholar and dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, and Kathy Seal argue that parents and teachers can create a solid foundation for learning by helping children develop the four key elements of success: competency, autonomy, curiosity, and critical relationships.
So to help you get started, here are six strategies that cover some of these elements that can kickstart your little one’s willingness to learn and succeed:
- Associate school learning to everyday life activities
The more your child sees the connection between what she learns with what she experiences in real life, the greater interest she will have in learning about the subject! You can start conversations, plan a trip, or relate the subject to familiar events or family members to associate the topic to daily life. For example, if your child is reading a book, try to ask her if the main character resembles anyone they know or if the story scenario is like a place you have visited before.
- Offer various types of experiences
Family trips or even everyday errands can spike a child’s curiosity. Remember that exposing your child to diverse experiences can offer many learning opportunities and increase her desire to explore! A visit to the park, museum, hardware store, market, or the ocean can enhance what children learn in books and school.
If your child has trouble with a certain subject, just try to do simple and fun activities to get her interested in something related to that. For example, if it’s math that she is struggling with, you can cook together to teach her about measurements. Or if perhaps your child is not feeling interested about a particular book, start a conversation about how it relates to her experiences or your family.
- Make your child feel competent
Nothing motivates children (and adults!) more than a feeling of competence. After children learn something new, they can’t wait to try it again. That’s why we see toddlers practicing emptying and filling boxes over and over again. They are trying out their newly learned skills! It’s a feeling of both satisfaction and curiosity that motivates them. Another part of building competence is being careful with the encouraging statements you say to your child. We’ve talked about this on previous posts, but it’s basically about avoiding praise on intelligence or giving vague praises. You should acknowledge what your child has accomplished and give her the chance to demonstrate what she has learned in the process. For instance, you can say, “You worked really hard on your drawing! I really liked how you organized the colors. Tell me more about what the colors mean”.
Remember that when you are giving feedback, it’s best to be specific on what you liked and ask to her questions about it, that way she will feel competent about the skills she is acquiring! An inevitable part of every learning journey, is feeling discouraged. Children are bound to feel this way at one point or the other, so what can you do in this situation? Remind your little one of what she already knows to restore her confidence, remind her that she has been able to successfully tackle similar tasks in the past, that she has the ability to get through it. Additionally, avoid saying, “that’s easy” to provide encouragement. It has been proven to actually backfire and make people feel incompetent. When your child struggles with a task, acknowledge the difficulty and offer constructive suggestions to help.
- Be excited about learning! It is contagious, pass it on
If your child is passionate about a particular interest, show enthusiasm and encourage her to explore more about the subject! An effective way to learn about different subjects is through books, so it’s a good idea for you to develop a reading habit in your family. Remember that you are your child’s role model, so when you read books and magazines for pleasure, it sends out the message that reading is something fun! You can start reading to your children as early as their first few months; remember, the sooner the better. This activity is not only helpful for bonding, but also is an effective way to develop linguistic skills!
- Focus on learning, rather than good grades
Unfortunately, society’s weight on testing does put a lot of unnecessary pressure and anxiety on children. You can decrease such worries by focusing on what she learned, rather than on her grades. For instance, ask your child to tell you more about a class project, rather than asking what grade she got on it. Additionally, avoid comparing your child to her friends, siblings, or peers –remember to focus on her own progress.
- Shed a positive light on failure
Look at failure as a learning opportunity. Give your child enough freedom to make choices, but let her know that you are there for her if she needs help. Make sure to remind your child that people who don’t make mistakes, are not leaning anything new. Whenever your child fails at something, go over the task and try to figure out together where the mistake lies or what part she did not understand.
As we can see, there are many things parents can do to promote a mastery-oriented mindset. Research by psychologist Paul O’Keefe, from Stanford University, shows that there are long-term effects to being exposed to a mastery-oriented environment. In his study, students who were exposed to an environment that emphasized learning for the sake of knowledge, where concerns of outperforming others were very small, maintained a mastery oriented mindset 6 months later! These students were immersed in that environment for a summer program, but it goes to show that once a mastery goal orientation has been fostered and reinforced, patterns of motivation persist.