How Can Children Become Internally Motivated?

We all know individuals whose lives have flourished as the result of an internal drive to succeed. As parents we know this type of internal motivation is a key factor to our child living their best life and can get frustrated or worried if we do not see it developing - concerned their great potential is going to waste. Children develop new ways of thinking and behaving throughout their life, and the development of internal motivation can happen at any point. However, Adults who provide explicit and consistent reinforcement of a child's tenacity will begin to see it embodied earlier as part of the child's inner style of thinking about herself (also known as habit of mind). Read on to learn how to help improve the motivation of any child, with or without special needs.


From the earliest days of life, children learn about themselves and the world around them by applying meanings to the words they hear. The messages sent and received by children are very powerful because children soak it all up in order to learn and grow. As parents and teachers, we set high expectations for our children because we want the best for them. The words we choose to recognize their achievements are very powerful and impact the development of their self-view. For example, when a child learns how to tie his shoes, a parent may say, "Wow! I'm so proud of you!! Great job!". While we all enjoy being praised, this comment focuses on how the parent feels about the child's accomplishment. If, however, a simple adjustment in the language is made and the recognition is phrased as "Wow! You must be so proud of yourself, you kept trying even though it was hard. You never give up!" the focus shifts to how the child should feel pride in themselves and the effort they displayed.

In the first example, the child learns to work for external motivation: the parental praise when he accomplishes a task. In the second example, the child learns to work for internal motivation for not just the accomplished task, but also for his effort. In the second example, the parent is putting more emphasis on the effort the child sustained which lead to the successful tying of the shoes. This language enables the child to view herself as someone who keeps trying even when something is challenging, and who has the ability to do hard things. Since the message explicitly focused on how the child accomplished the task, her awareness will be raised about her efforts as well as the feeling of pride she has when sticking with a challenge. Consistently using this model of positive reinforcement is a great way to help children learn to become internally motivated.

Pro-Tip: Children can detect meaning behind messages at any age. Saying

encouraging words such as "keep going, you are very close" is as compelling

for ninth graders as it is kindergartners. Words of encouragement can influence

adults as well; try this in your own self talk and notice the difference in how you

feel! Try saying to your self, "Even though I really don't want to spend X

number of hours preparing this report/reorganizing my closet, I know how to

keep going and will feel happy once I finish it."

Later in life, a child only encouraged with externally motivated language can still be successful, but may need to repeatedly seek adult praise to keep going, unaware of their own ability to show strength and persevere under difficult circumstances. Without the external reward, she may not be interested in sticking with it and may fall short of her goals. In contrast, the child who has built up a sense of internal motivation is more likely to push through difficulty because she wants to feel the internal pride experienced in the past when persistence led to success. This child will have the internal mental framework to persist because she knows she can work through challenging tasks and feels proud of herself for not giving up and also when she finally reaches her goal.


Children are expected to learn and develop at a rapid pace in academic and extracurricular areas, and to navigate home responsibilities such as managing belongings, chore completion, etc. It is fair to say that perseverance and self management are requirements for daily life, even for elementary-aged students! As significant people in our children's lives, we can make it easier for them to manage their busy worlds by coaching them on how to be aware of their personal power so they can reach their highest expectations. If as adults we have awareness about how our words of encouragement influence a child's self perception, there is a compelling reason to use language that notices any step she makes toward accomplishing the task and not just when a task is finally completed.

Pro-Tip: Behavioral psychologists use the term "close approximations" to identify

when an individual makes any attempt at meeting a goal. Adults who notice

children's efforts (close approximations) send the message that even if the first

attempt is not exactly right, the effort made is a noteworthy step in the right

direction. While the end result is important, the work and effort a person puts

forth is even more so because it can be a source of inspiration for future

endeavors; meaning, when faced with a new seemingly impossible task, the

child might be reminded of a past success and how he overcame

barriers to meet that challenge.

As children develop, they can experience new ways of thinking and behaving so becoming internally motivated may occur at any time in life. However, if adults understand how to explicitly and consistently notice a child's tenacity, a child will begin to embody this inner habit of mind or style of thinking about herself sooner. The beauty of this is that it will build greater self esteem and self confidence. When faced with new challenges, her internal dialogue will say "Bring it on!" as opposed to "I don't think I can do that." When we look at the long view for our children, we typically hope for the very best: happy life complete with family, adventures and a fulfilling career. Arming children early on with inner drive is a gift you can give that will last a lifetime and help them achieve the most out of their lives.

Have you had success using encouragement with your child to build internal motivation? Leave a comment in the comment section below, to share your experience, and thanks for reading!

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