by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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When we start talking about motivating kids to achieve greatness, typically we think back to the gold stars and happy faces that adorn work throughout early childhood. These gold stars and happy faces are recognition of a task well done by a child such as raising their hand before asking a question, turning in a picture they drew in class, or standing in a straight line without talking. These gold stars and happy faces eventually turn into stamps, medals, and patches to signify accomplishments in and outside of the classroom. A perfect example of these recognition pieces can be found in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as their sashes are filled with patches for archery, safety, and cooking. The same system of recognition is followed into the teenage years, such as helmet stickers for football players and patches on lettermen jackets. The system can even be found in adulthood, such as medals of honors for the military or certificates of achievement on the walls of businesses everywhere. All of these symbols represent great accomplishments, and can be motivating for many individuals, but motivation is so much more than this.
The key is the understanding and use of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is giving people rewards for accomplishments, as the examples given before show. The motivation to succeed in extrinsic motivation is built into earning these patches, medals, gold stars, and certificates. Individuals strive to show their greatness by showing off the gold stars and medals that they have earned. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is about people's inner motivation to achieve greatness. Intrinsically motivated individuals are not worried about earning gold stars, but rather are focused on their own growth and development. They strive to achieve for themselves and revel in their own accomplishments, even when others don’t recognize these accomplishments.
For motivation to be most effective there must be a balance of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Even the person with the greatest intrinsic motivation loves to be recognized for their accomplishments at times. The extrinsic motivation provides a road marker for the intrinsically motivated individual as they continue to strive for greatness. The key factor is the management of this balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. There is a need for higher amounts of extrinsic motivation at earlier ages, which is why we see the plethora of gold stars, patches, and happy faces in early childhood. Young children need to be recognized by others and provided awards for their achievements because this provides them feedback that their actions, behaviors, and work is moving them towards success. These forms of extrinsic motivation build the foundation for intrinsic motivation later in life. Eventually as kids grow up, they rely less on extrinsic rewards for their success as they are able to recognize success within themselves. Thus as kids grow up into the teenage years and beyond, the balance shifts from heavy extrinsic motivation to more intrinsic motivation.
As educators, coaches, and parents we must understand and utilize this balance to the best of our abilities. Too much focus on either extrinsic or intrinsic motivational techniques at the wrong times of a child’s development can stall their development into successful adults. The goal is to use extrinsic motivation techniques and rewards to build the foundation for children so that eventually they are successful at intrinsic motivation and no longer need to rely on others to show them they are achieving success. Thus by using extrinsic rewards at early ages we are able to show them the positive steps along their journey to success. By rewarding good behavior, actions, and work, kids begin to internalize these positive actions and are able to recognize the choices they must make to be successful.
The key is to realize that every child is different and their developmental paths differ from their peers. While the ideas presented in this blog regarding finding the balance are generalizations for the majority of children, some kids will develop their intrinsic motivation skills at an earlier age. Thus while general principles provide a great foundation for our work with children, we must be able to recognize the individualized and differentiated needs of every child. The key is to find the balance that works best for each child and support them along their developmental path. But an important note to remember is that no matter how strong a child’s intrinsic motivation is every child and teen appreciates being recognized for their success. And as long as the rewards and recognition are for legitimate behaviors, actions, and work then the extrinsic rewards will greatly impact their growth. So as educators, coaches, and parents, we must find the extrinsic rewards and recognition that best align with each child we work with so that the foundation can be built for them to intrinsically recognize their growth towards success.