Basic Theories of Motivation


“He’s Not Motivated”

Some children hide behind a screen of indifference, boredom, or defiance when encouraged to devote time to their studies or to a new hobby that seems too challenging. This is less common in young children, but grows more common in the teenage years.

To solve the problem of a child’s lack of motivation, we need to return to first principles: Children, when they are not angry or discouraged, want to do well. They want to feel good about themselves—and about others. They want to earn our praise and approval, and they want us to be proud of them. Children say that they don’t care, but they do care.

Sustained effort is a different matter. Our ability to work hard, to sustain effort at any task, requires a feeling of accomplishment or progress along the way, and some confidence in our eventual success. All constructive activity involves moments of anxiety, frustration, and discouragement. Children who are “not motivated” too readily give in to these feelings; __ Source

Arousal Theory

If the milieu of learning incorporates too much “arousal,” if the child feels anxious — or if he is depleted by the environment and feels apathy — he will not feel motivated to learn, nor will he be in a proper state for learning most difficult tasks or concepts.

Most students have experienced this need to maintain optimal levels of arousal over the course of their academic career. Think about how much stress students experience toward the end of spring semester—they feel overwhelmed with work and yearn for the rest and relaxation of summer break. Their arousal level is too high. Once they finish the semester, however, it doesn’t take too long before they begin to feel bored; their arousal level is too low. Generally, by the time fall semester starts, many students are quite happy to return to school. This is an example of how arousal theory works. __

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation to learn or to complete a task is related to the full set of incentives that are perceived by the child. A child may respond well in the short-term to external incentives, but in the long run he will be better served by incorporating internal incentives inside himself.

Intrinsically motivated behaviors are performed because of the sense of personal satisfaction that they bring. According to Deci (1971), these behaviors are defined as ones for which the reward is the satisfaction of performing the activity itself. Intrinsic motivation thus represents engagement in an activity for its own sake. For example, if you are in college because you enjoy learning new things and expanding your knowledge, you are intrinsically motivated to be there.

Extrinsically motivated behaviors, on the other hand, are performed in order to receive something from others or avoid certain negative outcomes. Theorists define extrinsic motivation as “engaging in an activity to obtain an outcome that is separable from the activity itself” (deCharms, 1968; Lepper & Greene, 1978). The extrinsic motivator is outside of, and acts on, the individual. Rewards—such as a job promotion, money, a sticker, or candy—are good examples of extrinsic motivators. Social and emotional incentives like praise and attention are also extrinsic motivators since they are bestowed on the individual by another person. __

Good teachers can provide external incentives for learning — a supportive atmosphere for learning — but one cannot always count on having such support in every learning environment. For Dangerous Children self-teaching is based upon a network of intrinsic motivations that are cultivated inside the child from a time well before he can walk or talk.

Mastery and Performance Goals

Mastery goals tend to be associated with the satisfaction of mastering something—in other words, gaining control, proficiency, comprehensive knowledge, or sufficient skill in a given area (such as mastering the art of cooking). Mastery goals are a form of intrinsic motivation (arising from internal forces) and have been found to be more effective than performance goals at sustaining students’ interest in a subject. In one review of research about learning goals, for example, students with primarily mastery orientations toward a course they were taking not only tended to express greater interest in the course, but also continued to express interest well beyond the official end of the course and to enroll in further courses in the same subject (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002; Wolters, 2004).

Performance goals, on the other hand, are extrinsically motivated (arising from external factors) and can have both positive and negative effects. Students with performance goals often tend to get higher grades than those who primarily express mastery goals, and this advantage is often seen both in the short term (with individual assignments) and in the long term (with overall grade point average when graduating). However, there is evidence that performance-oriented students do not actually learn material as deeply or permanently as students who are more mastery-oriented (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). __ Source

Grades and test scores are often used as motivators. But for many children and youth, the “knowledge” only lasts until the test or the class is over. After that it is almost all forgotten.

Children who are motivated toward mastery will find ways to tie new knowledge to older knowledge — particularly to relevant knowledge that has already been retained for significant periods of time because of its perceived relevance. Needless to say, new knowledge that is incorporated into practical knowledge skills, competencies, and sequences, are more likely to be retained and refreshed over a longer time scale.


Motivation begins with interest. Interest leads to exploration and learning, and to the development of projects. Projects then become ambitions and goals. Like all of us, children want to do what they are “good at.” They want to shine and feel proud. And, again, they want us to be proud of them.

A child’s motivation is also sustained by ideals. Children want to become like, to learn from, and to earn the respect of the people they admire. Too often, we overlook this fundamental aspect of children’s motivation and emotional development. We do not stop often enough, I believe, to consider our idealization in the eyes of our children—how children look to us and look up to us—and how we remain for our children, throughout life, sources of affirmation and emotional support. __ PT

Young children crave the praise and approval of their parents and others they admire. For the purpose of learning most skills, this is enough motivation. As a child gets older, he tends to grow more critical of adult authority figures, but if the parents have treated him fairly and with respect, he will continue to enjoy displaying skill and competence to them, and will enjoy their praise. But with time, his own approval will be sufficient praise to motivate a continued mastery of more skills of living.

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