How to Develop a Greater Sense of Motivation in Students

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Teachers can know their content backwards and forwards. They might have put hours into their lesson plans. But if their students aren’t motivated, learning won’t happen.

Often, childhood experiences may make motivation harder for students, according to a new working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a multidisciplinary research collaborative housed at Harvard University. The paper takes a look at the machinery of motivation: what’s going on in children’s brains when they’re motivated, and what’s holding them back?

The researchers identify two types of motivation: approach motivation, which steers us toward a reward, and avoidance motivation, which prompts us to avoid damage. Ideally, they balance each other out. Approach is foundational to most forms of learning, while avoidance can inhibit higher-level learning by forcing us to fixate on our immediate response to a task, rather than a long-term goal. Ultimately, to survive, we need both, but when they’re out of balance, it can lead to impulse-control problems, anxiety, or depression, among other mental health struggles.

Our motivation systems are partially laid out by genetics, but they’re also shaped by experiences. High levels of stress and a dearth of positive relationships with adults can affect how children’s brains respond to different tasks. Caring adults can help students develop the motivation systems that will serve them well, long into adulthood.

How to Build Healthy Motivation

Elicit curiosity and encourage exploration. Beyond their basic needs, children are intrinsically motivated by exploration, play, mastery, and success — all of which lay the groundwork for meaningful learning. Adults can reinforce these motivations through positive feedback of kids’ natural tendencies, rather than tampering these tendencies by dismissing opportunities to explore, or being overly fearful that children will get hurt — fears that can rub off. Caring adults whom children can trust can help them figure out what to actually be afraid of and avoid. Children from more volatile or abusive environments, perhaps lacking that caring adult influence, might become more highly attuned to avoidance and lose interest in healthy exploration.

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