How to Instill Intrinsic Motivation

For many years, my son Daniel disliked math. He simply found the subject boring. He struggled with his homework problems, and we both became increasingly frustrated.

He certainly wasn’t developing a love for math, and every technique we tried felt counter-productive. It was taking a toll on our relationship.

Then, one day, an idea popped into my head which I believe was one of my best parenting moments ever. I recalled a scene from one of my favorite movies, Contact, in which extraterrestrial life forms send a message to Earth. The only way for humanity to interpret the message was through math.

Knowing Daniel was fascinated with space and UFOs, I explained to him why math was so important. I could see the mental shift occurring as I explained, if he ever met an alien, math might be the only way for them to communicate.

It was perfect. He was highly motivated… albeit for a week or two.

In that moment, I experienced what it felt like to have an intrinsically motivated child, and it was wonderful.

Imagine if your child or students had high expectations and very clear goals. Imagine if they understood why everything you asked them to do—studying math, learning to write properly, eating healthy, helping around the house, etc.—was important to them attaining their goals and dreams.

No tricks or extrinsic motivators like money, rewards or grades necessary!  Children would think and act based on an understanding of their potential for growth and positive impact on the world. This would surely make teaching and parenting easier.

We all benefit from motivations that come from within and are connected authentically to who we are. However, this can’t always be reality, and there’s no instant gratification when building intrinsic motivation in students.

Techniques to Instill Intrinsic Motivation in Children

1 – Make the Future Matter!
Years ago, research on a concept called time preference emerged in the educational world. This concept describes how far ahead someone looks when making a decision. The findings showed that the average teenager would think 12 to 24 hours ahead when making a decision.Their decisions were made based on the perceived positive or negative consequences that would occur within the next 24 hours or less.

This is instant gratification-centric thinking. As an example, when faced with the option of quitting school or staying enrolled, the idea of no homework tomorrow would play a larger role in the decision than the long-term negative implications of not graduating.

The same study showed that if you could push their time horizon out even a few weeks, they were much less likely to make life-changing, catastrophic decisions like taking drugs, quitting school, or committing a crime.

Take every opportunity to envision the future with your children or students.

It is critically important to get students thinking about the future … to infuse it with some value that will influence the decisions they make.

Move the future from abstract to something almost tangible by discussing where they see themselves in one, five, or ten years.

2 – Success Begets Success
Have you ever watched a child playing a sport?  I’ve found that the highest levels of engagement and motivation come after some sort of success, whether it is a home run, touch down or goal scored.After my daughter scored her first soccer goal, her love for the game increased dramatically. Nothing begets motivation quite like success.

Humans need gratification and that feeling of accomplishment to stay motivated. Setting big goals is great, but we often lose steam when we experience minor setbacks or are daunted by the task at hand

Teach your children to have big dreams but to break them down into smaller goals that will allow them to experience quicker positive feedback and success.

Recognize the little accomplishments that add up to extraordinary achievements.

3 – Find Them Doing Things Right
There is a philosophy on motivating children called the Nurtured Heart Approach. This is the practice of focusing on the things they’re doing right.

Zeroing in on their mistakes or shortcomings, something that can be very demotivating to young people.

“Energy flows where attention goes.”

There are many case studies on principals and educational leaders who have transformed academic cultures by putting this practice to work.

Look to recognize the positive things your students or kids are doing.

Recognizing the absence of bad behavior can accomplish this. The feeling of success and positive energy is a wonderful source for motivating them in the future.

4 – Give Greater Hope
When you change the way people view themselves, their environment, and their future, you change the decisions they make in the present. In our early work teaching entrepreneurship, our greatest successes were with inner-city drug dealers and gang members.

They were already quintessential entrepreneurs. Their natural inclinations were to build networks, manage processes, and make money. Our programs gave them a healthy and legal outlet in which to use their entrepreneurial skills by providing hope for a better future

The Possible Selves Theory teaches that by guiding individuals to perceive possible “future selves,” we help them become more optimistic and function better socially and emotionally.

Teach your kids to dream big and make sure not to harshly judge a dream. The fact that they’re dreaming is what matters, not the dream’s content.

5 – Let Them Tell Their Stories

Allow your child or students to create their story and share their experiences. Give them the space to open their hearts and fuel their passions.

I once heard Erin Gruwell speak about her organization Freedom Writers. I was so moved by the power that was unleashed when her students transformed their lives through the process of telling their own stories.

As one of her students put it, “Writing in the diary allowed us to look at our lives objectively and gain perspective. Somehow it gives us strength and resolve, and it cleanses us .”

By taking a step back and finding our stories, we find meaning in our lives, see what matters and inspires us, and organically re-frame how we look at the future.

When you encourage students to find and share their stories, they build self-esteem, make stronger connections, gain inspiration, and often inspire others to do the same. They find themselves in their stories, and this leads intrinsic desire and motivation to expand within them.

6 – Use Video Metaphors
One of the best ways to instill knowledge and perspective is through the use of metaphors.

One of the most powerful tools we have today is the proliferation of online videos that share inspirational stories. A quick search of YouTube, Vimeo, or Dailymotion will result in hundreds of videos with great positive messages. Many of these are stories of people just like your students with many of the same issues, struggles, and obstacles.

Videos are both engaging and relevant. They inspire and broaden perspective, opening up new possibilities for students who see proof that they are capable of success beyond their current thinking or perceived limitations.

The videos can also demonstrate in real terms what success looks like and what is required, which is a great springboard for fostering intrinsic motivation.

There is amazing content everywhere that can inspire your children, engage them in life and motivate them to think of what they can become.

7 – Use Extrinsic Rewards ONLY to Drive Intrinsic Behavior
There is a great cookbook written by Jessica Seinfeld (Jerry’s wife) called Deceptively Delicious. In it, she provides recipes for things like chicken nuggets, pancakes and other items kids typically love. Her trick is mixing in healthy components while maintaining the kid-friendly taste. She adds cauliflower to the chicken nuggets and bananas in the pancakes, so the kids are eating what they love while she gives them what they need.

I try not to use extrinsic motivation with my children because it feels (to me) more like bribery than parenting. But is it?

We’re all trying to build good habits in our children. Habits come with practice, so we need to facilitate activity that grows into good habits.

Extrinsic motivators CAN be used to help with this.

The next time your child gets a good grade or accomplishes something, provide a reward. Instead of celebrating the prize, celebrate the person they became to get the reward. Put the attention towards the growth.

If you give your child an allowance, throw in some new tasks like demonstrating self-discipline, keeping a gratitude journal, or being creative by using problem-solving skills. You could also give them a bonus for putting effort into improving themselves such as by reading a book, practicing an instrument, or practicing a sport. Like Jessica Seinfeld, give them the pancakes, but make sure they’re getting what they need.

There are no silver bullets, nor is there instant gratification when it comes to building intrinsic motivation in youth.

These techniques are effective tools that will get results when executed over time. Stay focused.

The greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to thrive without us, and intrinsic motivation is the fuel that will allow it to happen!

3 Comments

  1. Mindfulness in Education on July 27, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    […] in their life away from its normal pressures. Most importantly, the goal is to guide them to look within for answers and […]



  2. Emily Phelps on October 4, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    My 7yo who seems to need a little boost in motivation and I was beginning to feel like I had come at her from every angle until I read your list, so thank you!
    In fact, I began to remember a few things from my own childhood that I didn’t realize at the time were motivators…While reading #7, I instantly remembered how my extremely unfair mother refused to buy me a very expensive pair of boots I wanted so badly, even after I passionately stressed to her the importance of these boots to me, she stood firm, offering to buy me an inexpensive but similar pair (how embarrassing?!) or insisting if I wanted them so badly I would have to buy them myself because she could not afford expensive for expensive’s sake.
    However… this same frugal lady would spare no expense if there were books or art supplies I just *wanted.* She would routinely spend well above the price of those boots on things that she knew I would use, devour, exhaustively. She was selective with the flames she fanned. But she knew what she was doing… Some things would be used up quickly, streaked across some surface in a mess, discarded altogether, but I still have quite an impressive collection of tools, equipment, supplies, and the books… a sight to behold. And none of it is just for looks… My entire family but most of all my daughters faithfully dig into the books. And my mother’s walls become more and more covered with my art work as I work through her endless “wish list” of projects. And best of all, my own walls are becoming more and more covered with my own daughters’ (untamable) art work! Now, if only we could wake up that motivation for her other school work, we’ll be doing great.
    Here’s to good resources and good examples!
    Thanks again 😉



  3. Ricardo on May 4, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Great article. Here is our story..
    Soon after my daughter turn 6 or 7, every time we traveled somewhere, I would it make it a point to stop by the local university to tour it and get to enjoy it. I would also make it a point to stop by the local school store and get my daughter something of her own choosing. Since she loves soccer, this one time she made me drive from pasadena to UCLA to go and get a soccer ball. She is now just 12 yrs old, and guess where she now wants to go to school to play college soccer, UCLA. She has plans and I am helping her to get there.



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