Whether you’re a parent or an educator (or both!), child behavior is at the top of your concerns at some point in each day. In the latest section of our read along series, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (affiliate link), Rae Pica explores several topics surrounding our adult approaches to managing child behavior. She shares a key concept that is at the heart of what I teach about Positive Guidance :
“Discipline shouldn’t be about punishment; it should be about children learning to make better choices.”
Discipline is about teaching. That concept is a complete perspective shift for many people. Along with it comes the realization that our objective is not really about us having control of the children, but about helping the children to develop and display self-control.
This new paradigm requires us to realize that there is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators — influences from outside of the child (rewards, punishments, etc) — are easy to control, but their impact is fleeting and fickle. We can get children to act, but not necessarily buy in for long term change. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the child, and constitutes genuine choice and desire. Genuine engagement. Because it’s authentic and integral to the child it’s influence is much more powerful, but also requires more effort and skill to influence.
Rae writes about touching on this difference in a panel discussion:
“When I asked the remaining panelists why the research is being ignored, they — teachers all — agreed that it comes down to compliance or the quick fix. And they admitted that achieving compliance is easier than getting engagement — the latter of which is what keeps kids motivated.”
My friend, Deborah Stewart, of Teach Preschool, was one of those panelists and responded with her usual brilliance following that interview, writing:
“…Just know that the best way to get children to listen, care, and respect each other and you is to capture their attention and get them engaged. A compliant child may make your job seem easier, but an engaged child will make your job rewarding.”
So how do we engage children and build their intrinsic motivation? Here are a few places to start.
Provide Choices: Rae suggests that instead of using rewards to motivate, we should offer choices to generate intrinsic motivation and engagement. As she writes, “For example, if you want the students to do an art project, allow them a choice of materials. If you’re assigning a writing project, give them a choice of topics.”
Connect: Show an interest in the children and in what they find interesting. Genuine interest and supportive relationships reinforce positive behaviors in a powerful way.
Provide Feedback: Avoid empty praise. Instead of a hollow “good job”, make sure you provide actual, actionable feedback. “I can see you’re using lots of circles and thinking very carefully about where to put them.” (Read more at Praise Junkies Beware and Praise Junkies Part 2.)
Involve Them: Encourage children to think critically about their behavior or performance themselves, rather than receiving it passively. “Which one do you think was your best letter e?” “Tell me about the colors you used.”
Create a Culture: Whether it’s your home or your classroom, creating a positive group culture increases intrinsic motivation and improves behavior in a way that top-down rules and punishments don’t. It takes more effort, but it also yields more powerful results.
As Rae says, “Instant gratification, “easy”, and “it’s always been done this way” aren’t good enough reasons to keep bribing or punishing kids if we’re truly concerned about their future and the kind of human beings we’re helping to mold.”
What are your perspectives and observations when it comes to motivating young children?
This section of the reading included the topics of praise, time outs, bribes & threats, and expulsions, so share your thoughts on any of those specific topics as well.
And as always, share your questions — about this topic or another — for the author, Rae Pica. She’ll be answering YOUR questions in the next post in this series!