Early Childhood Education

Cultivating Self-Motivation in Preschool

For the very youngest students, providing space and autonomy to learn through play may be the key to promoting a lifelong love of learning.

November 3, 2020
Raul Mellado / Alamy Stock Photo

One of my friend’s kids was a boy of strong and abiding passions. From the time he was a preschooler, whenever he saw me he would enthuse about outer space or his electric trains. As he got older, he became a collector of knives, loving nothing more than to set out a careful display of his hardware, complete with a lecture on the proper use and care of each. He delved deeply into music for a time, teaching himself the guitar. Later he shifted his focus to bicycles, building new ones from old parts. He always had something going on in that wonderful, curious brain of his.

When the boy was in high school, I happened to meet one of his teachers. When I told him that I knew his student, he said, “I worry about him. He has motivation problems.”

Surprised, I shared my observations about the kid I had gotten to know over many years. He replied, “I had no idea. I wish he would open up to me.”

When I later discussed this conversation with the boy, he grimaced. I encouraged him to talk to his teacher, “It’s obvious he hasn’t gotten to know the real you.”

“I don’t want my teachers to know anything about me,” he said. “Whenever teachers know what a kid likes, they try to take it away and use it as, like, a punishment or a reward for good grades or something.”

How Not to Motivate Students

When Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the successful Dutch home health-care company Buurtzorg, was asked, “How do you motivate your employees?” he replied, “I don’t. Seems patronizing.” This is the leader of a company with 10,000 employees that has been voted Employer of the Year in the Netherlands five times. Buurtzorg has minimal management and no human resources department, and runs on the principles of “trust and self-organization.”

Our educational system has long been fueled by the notion that one of a teacher’s main jobs is to motivate children. There’s a widely held belief that students, like employees, are primarily motivated—or at least can be motivated—to greater achievement through rewards and punishments.

The funny thing is that when we teachers are asked what most motivates us, we don’t put money or other incentives at the top of our list. Indeed, if money were our primary motivation, most of us could find more of it in other professions. No, as teachers we are, by and large, moved by our higher calling, as is my friend’s son, and the nurses employed by Jos de Blok.

An article in Harvard Business Review cites research that found that most people feel this way about themselves. While more money and other incentives are always welcome, most of us are at our best when we’re self-motivated rather than extrinsically motivated. But that article also notes that while we see ourselves as self-motivated, we tend to believe that other people need carrots and sticks. Psychologists call this phenomenon extrinsic incentive bias.

What de Blok has tapped into is that people are most empowered and productive when they are trusted, and free to self-organize, much in the way my friend’s son taught himself so much over the years while protecting his self-motivation from those who would patronize him.

Implications for Preschool Teachers

What does this mean for preschool educators? If we want our students to be self-motivated, we would be wise to trust them and to grant them as much autonomy as possible.

The human brain is designed not only to learn but also to decide what, when, and how it will learn. When we trust young children enough to ask and answer their own questions and to explore their strong and abiding passions, each student reveals what their brain has decided it most needs or wants to learn.

Having been a play-based preschool educator for the better part of two decades, I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered an unmotivated student. I’m fortunate in having never been charged with implementing any kind of curriculum other than the one the children themselves created. However, it’s my strong belief that self-motivation should be the gold standard.

Educators who understand their role as facilitating rather than instructing find that allowing children to own their learning leads to more eager and productive engagement, although it does require setting aside adult notions of the proper way to go about learning something. Often this means doing nothing, which is hard for many of us. It can mean that the children’s learning doesn’t happen in the orderly way we might envision. It means understanding that there is no such thing as wasted time, because sometimes learning requires looking at things from all sides, both alone and in the company of others, and with all of our senses.

My friend’s son is now an adult. His passions eventually led him to motorcycles, rock climbing, and a life he loves as a forest ranger, continuing his journey as a self-motivated lifelong learner, which, after all, is the real goal of the important work we do.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Pre-K

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