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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Understanding Motivation in Children and Teenagers, and Where We Went Wrong

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist
Director of New Hampshire Operations

As parents and teachers, we hear, and say, these things all the time:

“Why doesn’t he just do it?”

“How many times do I have to ask you?”

“Why don’t you care about your work?”

“She just doesn't have the drive.”

Be it schoolwork, chores, or social events, some kids seemingly just aren’t motivated to do things. We punish. We nag. We fight. But even with all of this, sometimes things do not change.

It is easy to become frustrated, but in this state of frustration, we often forget to ask ourselves why finding motivation is so difficult for the child.

There are two types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is an internal desire or drive to do something based strictly on the resulting feeling of satisfaction or enjoyment. Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards, such as money, good grades, stickers, toys, or other things. Intrinsic motivation has long-lasting effects, while behavior based on extrinsic motivation is fleeting.

Some children seem to develop intrinsic motivation naturally. For other children, we attempt to gain compliance or task completion through extrinsic motivation – behavioral charts, rewards, punishments, etc. Sometimes this works in the short term, but as soon as the rewards or punishments are gone, so is the behavior. Other times, even extrinsic motivation seems absent and behavior still does not change, no matter how big the reward or punishment.

Frustration ensues and we often find ourselves feeling or saying the above things – the child does not have the motivation, therefore the work or task does not get done. But where does this leave us? The adults are defeated, the child feels blamed, and the situation worsens.

So where’d we go wrong?

Our understanding of motivation is often backwards – motivation exists, therefore successful behavior occurs. This is wrong. We are not born inherently knowing how to motivate ourselves. We learn it through successful experiences in the world. So, what really happens is: successful behavior occurs, therefore motivation develops.

Lesson #1: Motivation is the effect, not the cause.
In reversing the relationship, we can now ask ourselves: “What is causing the lack of motivation?” If we are able to identify and address the underlying challenges, the child can begin to experience the successes that are necessary for motivation to develop over time. Further, in accepting that motivation is learned through experience and not inherent, we accept that the term “intrinsic” is somewhat misleading.

Lesson #2: Intrinsic motivation is not naturally intrinsic – it becomes intrinsic after feelings of success are internalized.

By identifying and addressing skills deficits, we can help children to experience more successes and increase their willingness and ability to “try harder.” Academic deficits, attention problems, anxiety, low self-esteem, social challenges, executive function weaknesses, among other things, can all interfere with motivation. Challenges in any one of these areas can, and will, interfere with motivation. As such, motivation is not a single thing. It is a complex skill that can only develop once other, more basic, skills have developed.

Lesson #3: Motivation is not one thing – it is the coordination of many skills.

Now viewing motivation as something that is learned over time as other, more basic, skills develop and a child experiences successes in life, we are better able to develop a plan for how to intervene.

Take home message: All children and teens can be motivated – it is our job to teach them how.

When motivation seems absent or fleeting, we must become detectives, working to figure out what underlying challenges or deficits are present. This may be aided through conversations with the child’s teachers or other support providers. Other times, a comprehensive evaluation may be necessary in order to specifically identify the child’s strengths and challenges, as well as receive individualized recommendations for how to address their needs.

Dr. Currie will be offering a free webinar about motivation and self-regulation this Spring. Stay tuned for sign-up information. 

About the Author:

Dr. Angela Currie conducts neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments out of NESCA’s Londonderry, NH and Newton, MA offices, seeing individuals with a wide range of concerns. She enjoys working with stressed-out children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors that may be lending to their stress, including assessment of possible underlying learning challenges (such as dyslexia or nonverbal learning disability), attentional deficit, or executive function weakness. She also often conducts evaluations with children confronting more primary emotional and anxiety-related challenges, such as generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or depression. Dr. Currie particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.

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