If you’ve ever had a hobby or pastime that you did just because it made you feel good, and there was no prize or other compensation at the end, then you can recall how internal motivation feels. It feels pretty good, right?

Well, you’ve probably also had an experience where you stopped doing something you used to enjoy, because something about the activity changed for you. Maybe you used to love a certain sport, but after too many competitions and tournaments, you felt burnt out and you haven’t played in years. Or maybe you got in trouble for doing something you enjoyed and decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.

Internal motivation, or intrinsic motivation, is the idea that we do things we enjoy simply because we enjoy them, not because we’re seeking rewards or trying to avoid punishment (external motivators) and it is a deeply connected to learning. What we enjoy, we seek more of, and what we love, we learn. So, how do we foster internal motivation in our children? How do we help them identify those positive feelings without connecting the behavior to an external motivator (like praise or punishment)?

To start with, stop saying “good job.” If you can put a red light on that one, you’ll be well on your way. “Good job,” and other simple phrases that praise children for — let’s be honest, pretty much everything — are external motivators. It may sound a little backwards, but too much praise is actually a bad thing! Here are some examples of what to say instead of “good job, great work,” or “I love it!”

Phrase #1 to Foster Internal Motivation: I can see how hard you worked.

Acknowledge your child’s effort and then expand on it. Draw attention to the details you see and elaborate on them.

“I can see how hard you worked on this building. Wow… look at the windows and the corners you added… You used up every block!”

“I can see how hard you worked to tie your shoes! That must feel good to do it all by yourself with no help!

two boys smile with pride at their work. Foster internal motivation.

Phrase #2 to Foster Internal Motivation: What do you love about this?

Encourage your child to reflect on what he or she enjoys and let them have their own opinions about what they like or don’t.

“Look at all these colors and shapes! So fancy! What do you love about this picture you drew for me?”

“You ate your whole dinner! What was your favorite part?”

Phrase #3 to Foster Internal Motivation: I can tell you’re really proud of yourself.

Drawing your child’s attention to internal feelings of pride, accomplishment, or success, helps them identify it the next time it shows up. It feels good, so name it and describe it.

“I can tell you’re really proud of yourself for getting all the way across the monkey bars! Your smile is so big!!”

Phrase #4 to Foster Internal Motivation: That was tough, but you kept going!

Perseverance and determination are two qualities that will get any child over some major hurdles in life. A child who learns, at a young age, that she is capable of doing hard things, will be able to build on that experience.

“That was tough, but you kept going! It’s okay to be tired, you’ve been working so hard.”

Look at how much you’ve done / how far you’ve come! What was the most challenging part?”

Instead of falling back on external motivators like praise or rewards (sticker charts, prizes, etc), talk to your child about what’s happening to them inside when they’re engaged in a behavior they enjoy. Help them identify the emotions they’re experiencing so that they can learn from it for the next time.

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Children’s House Montessori School of Reston (CHMS) is a small, family-oriented school located in a peaceful wooded setting in Reston, Virginia. We believe that a child’s first school experience should be filled with curiosity, exploration and opportunities for  independence. We offer half-day and full-day Montessori programs for children 3 years of age through kindergarten.

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