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Motivation for Pediatric Population

Motivation can be defined as a process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained. Motivation is an ongoing process, not a completed product. The purpose of motivation is to instigate and sustain the activities that will keep the individual moving in the goal-related direction. Motivation may be intrinsic, extrinsic, or a combination of the two.

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to participate in an activity merely for the pleasure derived from that activity. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to participate in activity for the sake of a desirable outcome, such as praise or reward or avoidance of negative outcome.

There are five main elements of intrinsic motivation: control/causation, novelty/curiosity, confidence/competence, play, and joining the community. As parents or caregivers, you can play a role in maintaining innate intrinsic motivation in a child by implementing new approaches to interactions.

1. Allow the child to have some control/causation in their environment – provide 2-3 options then allow the child the final choice.

2. Implement novelty and spark curiosity when possible – change the environment or toys being played with regularly. Avoid discouraging curiosity – when a child drops a spoon, and you say do not do that again and within 10 seconds they drop a fork on the ground – the child was likely experimenting and felt that changing the object would be fine; depending on your reaction to the second drop on the floor may determine their intrinsic motivation to experiment in the future.

3. Praise the process and not the outcome and be careful with feedback – do not wait until they win or accomplish the goal to give praise (this leads to extrinsically motivated individuals) but instead provide praise during the process such as “You are so dedicated to your goals” or “Each time you have tried again you have done better; I am so proud of you.” On feedback it is also important to avoid vague compliments. Instead of saying "nice job," you might tell the child how the technique was effective. An example for art would be: "I see that you used both high-contrast colors and glitter to make the shapes in the painting pop out.” Helping to make a child's process explicit leads to self-reflection and self-confidence, which are both learning enhancers.

4. Play varies from person to person, but one important factor is to avoid scheduling “play” or planning it out. Research shows that children do not view activities as play when they were scheduled by teachers such as block building or arts and craft.

5. Joining the community is the innate desire to become like those around you – instead of telling a child to do something, try to make it interesting or exciting by doing it first whether it is eating vegetables or coloring pictures.

Intrinsic motivation is innate in every human, but experiences can shape our understanding of what is important in life and lead us towards being extrinsically motivated. Research indicates intrinsic motivation creates longer lasting engagement and focus and is related to greater enjoyment of life.


Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Motivation: Why We Do What We Do. Executive Enterprise. Published March 20, 2020. Accessed July 12, 2021.

Carlton, Martha P. Intrinsic Motivation in Young Children: Supporting the Development of Mastery Motivation in the Early Childhood Classroom. Accessed July 12, 2021.

Baldassarre G, Stafford T, Mirolli M, Redgrave P, Ryan RM, Barto A. Intrinsic motivations and open-ended development in animals, humans, and robots: an overview. Frontiers in psychology. Published September 9, 2014. Accessed July 12, 2021.

Ostroff WL. Understanding How Young Children Learn: Bringing the Science of Child Development to the Classroom. Alexandria, VA, USA : ASCD; 2012.

How to Motivate Students by Age and Stage of Development. 3P Learning. Published January 11, 2021. Accessed July 12, 2021.

How to Motivate Children: Science-Based Approaches for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Published February 25, 2019. Accessed July 12, 2021.

Cooper BB. Novelty and the Brain: Why New Things Make Us Feel So Good. Lifehacker. Published May 21, 2013. Accessed May 5, 2021.

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