Principals Pen Thursday, 13 Aug 2020

Can you recall the Connect parent session in January? We looked at Daniel Pink’s research* in relation to motivation, and talked about how this research plays out in the Living Faith context and how it can play out in the family home.

Eight months later seems as good a time as any to revisit the topic of motivation, looking specifically at praise.

Even if they don’t show it, every child loves to receive praise. Praise encourages and motivates; it nurtures self-esteem, confidence and identity. The key for us – the adults in children’s lives – is to offer praise not in a way that children rely on it in order to feel a sense of worth and accomplishment, but in a way that will support them to be intrinsically- or self-motivated.

When we dish out praise for every little thing (eg child picks up after themselves: ‘Good job!’; child shares: ‘Well done!’; child completes their home learning: ‘Amazing!’), the message the child receives is that we are impressed by basic expectations and kindness, the bar for their ongoing behaviour and achievement is low, and their worth is wrapped up in their accomplishments.

When we offer our personal assessment of a child’s actions (eg, ‘I love that you did up your seatbelt all by yourself’, ‘Your Lego tower makes me so happy.’), we are conditioning our children to believe that their motivation and happiness comes only from pleasing adults.

Despite our well-meaning intentions, when we lavish praise over every little thing or offer our personal assessment of a child’s actions, children can become slaves to praise. The likely long-term effect is that they will experience despondence in adulthood and become demotivated when their peers or future employers don’t shower them with praise. The risk is that they will become adults who struggle to function self-sufficiently in terms of their emotional wellbeing.

The way to support intrinsic motivation in children is to praise and draw attention to effort. ‘Thank you for picking up your toys. And look, you tidied the entire room!‘ ‘It must have taken a lot of patience to share with your little brother when he wasn’t showing gratitude.’ ‘You’ve completed your PBL gateway. It looks like you had to use a range of strategies to get there.’ ‘I can see that you’ve learned to do up your own seatbelt. How does that make you feel?’ ‘Your persistence really paid off with that Lego tower.’

Praising effort reminds children that we see them and that we are engaged in what they’re doing. It draws attention to the process rather than our assessment of their performance, and it helps to instil in students a self-driven motivation that will serve them well in their adult years.

*To those who missed the Connect session, you might like to view Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk – it’s more than a decade old, yet still relevant – or check out his book, Drive.

- Jane Mueller, Principal