Instinctual Optimism and Intrinsic Motivation: Every LD Student’s Keys to Success

Did you ever wonder?student-yound-asking-teacher-question

  • How a ten-month-old knows if she just keeps standing up she will eventually be able to walk.
  • How an eighteen-month knows if he just keeps making noises eventually people will understand what he is communicating.
  • How a three-year-old child knows if she just keeps scribbling eventually people will recognize what she is making.
  • How a four-year-old child knows if he just keeps looking at the words on the page eventually they will “speak” to him.

These behaviors can be best explained by the concept of instinctual optimism. Instinctual optimism is one of the two, early, critical keys for academic success.

Instinctual Optimism

Instinctual implies that children do not have to learn by experience alone, they just know. Optimism implies that no matter what challenge comes before them they retain the belief that with perseverance they will ultimately experience success. Instinctual optimism is a quality that we believe is genetically driven in our species. Instinctual optimism explains why children, absent any knowledge of their capacity or potential for success, are willing to try again and again to master developmental tasks. All children come into the world with instinctual optimism. It is the engine that drives their daily quest to understand and master the world around them. Instinctual optimism is a core component in a child’s resilient mindset. Resilience is a pattern of positive adjustment and adaptation in the context of any challenge or adversity. Resilient children harness their instinctual optimism to persevere time and time again.

Intrinsic Motivation

Can you imagine a situation in which a young child asked a parent for a reward in exchange for playing in the sandbox? Seems absurd. However, think about this and you quickly realize that children’s curiosity driven by their instinctual optimism is all the reward or reinforcement they require to engage in every day activities. This internal drive is often referred to as intrinsic motivation, the second critical key to academic success. Young children engage in activities not because they are receiving external or extrinsic motivators, but because they simply enjoy the activities. More than 50 years ago Harvard psychologist Robert White advanced the belief that there is an inborn need or motivation in children to be effective individuals and to master the challenges they would face in their environment. The combination of instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation explains why the majority of children embrace the concept of school.

Parents often comment that their young children can’t wait to go to school at the beginning of the new school year, sometimes because older siblings attend school or they have the opportunity to wear new clothes or to ride the school bus. However, this enthusiasm is quickly dampened for many children. They soon learn that the school environment is one in which you will be judged and evaluated in a competitive atmosphere; an atmosphere in which no matter how well you perform you will repeatedly be reminded there is always room for improvement. Children initially embrace school because it presents yet another developmental challenge about which they are instinctually optimistic they will master and to which they are intrinsically motivated to engage.

Yet, the first thing that happens when children enter school is they encounter an educational system all-too-often driven by a stimulus-response model that offers the promise of a reward, the threat of a punishment, or the challenge of a competition in a well meant effort to motivate children. These three extrinsic motivators may be effective, but at a price. They very clearly work against and challenge the continued nurturing and development of intrinsic motivation; that is, succeeding at school for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of success and learning. The belief that their efforts are not to earn grades, money, nor privileges but because the accomplishment is intrinsically motivating is soon eclipsed by the promise of external rewards.

School and the effects of instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation

Unfortunately, when children with learning, emotional, behavioral, social, academic, or other developmental problems enter school they quickly begin to struggle. Struggle at school is often defined as being slow. As educator, Dr. Joan Goodman, noted some years ago – slow isn’t fast enough. Our educational system has determined that these struggles require a greater degree of extrinsic motivation to keep children involved in school activities. Yet it is exactly these students who require more of our diligence to ensure that we do not steal or chip away at their intrinsic motivation when they struggle at school. We are not suggesting the elimination of grades, rewards, punishments, or competitions in our educational system but that for all students, and especially those who struggle, we must be mindful of keeping a balance between the use of extrinsic motivators and the continued nurturance of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation drives self-reinforcement, a phenomenon that we believe strongly is the foundation of academic success, even more important than intellect, ability, and opportunity.

When children struggle with instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation, we must patiently and supportively assist them through experiences that hopefully will further develop these qualities. For some children, the process is fairly easy. For others, it is difficult. One can understand how a child weak in instinctual optimism will be prone to see mistakes as failures to avoid and academic challenges as too difficult, ultimately developing a helpless or hopeless approach to school. We can also understand that a child with weak intrinsic motivation will find it difficult to engage in many tasks without some extrinsic payoff, a pattern that can lead to passivity and lack of achievement motivation at school.

There are realistic, effective strategies we can suggest for nurturing these qualities and offsetting feelings of pessimism and helplessness. They are predicated on our own work in the area of resilience and motivation as well as the research of others. We have been especially impressed with the research of psychologist Edward Deci at the University of Rochester. His findings serve as guideposts for devising and implementing interventions that address the strengthening of intrinsic motivation and bolster optimism. Deci’s book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, is an excellent resource and an approach that has similarities to those advanced by Dr. William Glasser (author of Reality Therapy and The Quality School).

The Framework Proposed by Deci

Instead of posing the question, “How can people motivate others?” Deci asks, “How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?” This is an important distinction as it shifts the focus away from extrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on external rewards and punishments and the possibility of feeling controlled) to intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on what Deci labels “authenticity and responsibility” and a feeling of having choice).

Deci proposes that intrinsic motivation will thrive when people are in environments in which significant needs are being met. He has highlighted three such needs, including (a) to belong and feel connected, (b) to feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination, and (c) to feel competent. As psychologists, we keep these needs in view as we attempt to establish conditions that will nurture motivation and hope in others.

To belong and feel connected:

An integral concept in our books about resilience is the power of connectedness. Children and adolescents will feel increasingly self-motivated in those environments in which they feel welcome and in which they sense that adults care about them. This need is very important in schools, reflected in the oft-quoted statement that “students don’t care what you know until they first know you care.”

Educators should ask themselves, “How do I help each student to feel welcome in my classroom?” When we queried students of all ages about actions they thought a teacher or school administrator might take each day to help them to feel welcome, the two most frequent responses were being greeted warmly by name and having a teacher smile at them. Obviously, seemingly small gestures can go a long way to help students feel welcome.

The power of connections and a feeling of belonging will impact a student’s academic and social success at school. A Massachusetts Department of Education report emphasized, “Possibly the most critical element to success within school is a student developing a close and nurturing relationship with at least one caring adult. Students need to feel that there is someone within school they know, to whom they can turn, and who will act as an advocate for them.” Obviously, the importance of feeling connected and a valued member of the school community is a powerful motivator for students.

In the home environment, we have advocated that parents establish what we call “special times” with their children, that is, a time alone with each child on a regular basis. For instance, a parent can say to a child, “When I read to you or play with you, it is such an important time, that even if the phone rings I won’t get it. I don’t want anything to interrupt our time together.” Parents have told us how effective they have found this practice to be in nurturing their relationship with their children. When children feel they have their parents’ attention and unconditional love, they are more likely to be cooperative and motivated.

To feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination:

At the core of Deci’s theory of motivation are the concepts of ownership and self-determination. If our goal is to create environments in which children are self-motivated, then we must make certain that they feel their voices are being heard and respected and that they have some control over what transpires in their lives. If youngsters believe they are constantly told what to do and that adults are dictating their lives, they are less likely to be enthused or motivated to engage in particular tasks. If anything, their main motivation may be to avoid or oppose the desires of others; a power struggle, uncooperative behavior, and anger are likely to ensue.

Intrinsic motivation will be nurtured in those environments in which adults seek and respect the input of children and adolescents. A belief in eliciting the views of children and adolescents also requires that we provide opportunities to strengthen their problem-solving and decision-making skills. For instance, a group of students with special needs were engaged in conducting research about existing charities. Based on their research findings, they determined which charity to support and the most effective ways of raising money. These activities enhanced their self-esteem, reinforced their academic skills, and, as importantly, nurtured an attitude of compassion and caring for others.

Even the provision of seemingly small choices has a major impact on self-motivation. In one school we visited teachers provided students a choice of which homework problems to do. For instance, if there were eight problems on a page, students were told, “It’s your choice. You have to consider all eight problems, but you do the six that you think will help you to learn best.” In feedback we obtained from the faculty at the school, they reported receiving more homework of higher quality when allowing their students some choice.

The feelings of choice and ownership are closely associated with the research of Dr. Carol Dweck. In her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck advocates, “You have to teach students that they are in charge of their intellectual growth” while her colleague Lisa Blackwell emphasizes, “The message is that everything is within the kids’ control, that their intelligence is malleable.”

Parents have countless opportunities to nurture a sense of self-determination and motivation by teaching and encouraging the use of problem-solving skills in their children. If parents are to reinforce this problem-solving attitude, they must refrain from constantly telling their children what to do. Instead it is more beneficial to encourage children to consider different possible solutions. To facilitate this process, parents might wish to establish a “family meeting time” every week or every other week during which problems facing family members can be discussed and solutions considered.

Jane, a nine-year-old girl, came home from school in tears and sobbed to her mother, Mrs. Jones, that some of her friends refused to sit with her at lunch, telling her they did not want her around. Jane felt confused and distressed and asked her mother what to do. Mrs. Jones immediately replied that Jane should tell the other girls that if they did not want to play with her, she did not want to play with them. While this motherly advice may have been appropriate, quickly telling Jane what to do and not involving her in a discussion of possible solutions took away an opportunity to strengthen her own problem-solving skills.

To feel competent:

We use the metaphor of “islands of competence” in our work, observing that too often we fixate on problems to be corrected rather than on strengths to be reinforced. We believe that every child possesses certain areas of strength, areas that are or have the potential to be a source of pride and accomplishment. We encourage parents, teachers, and other adults to identify and build upon these islands in children. This task is even more urgent for students who struggle with learning and often believe they are failures with few, if any, strengths.

Deci together with other researchers and clinicians have emphasized the importance of reinforcing islands of competence as a catalyst for self-motivation. For instance, psychiatrist Michael Rutter, discussing resilient and motivated individuals, concludes, “Experience of success in one arena of life led to enhanced self-esteem and a feeling of self-efficacy, enabling them to cope more successfully with subsequent life challenges and adaptations.”

If people are in environments in which there is little, if any, acknowledgement of their strengths and an inordinate focus on their weaknesses, they are more likely to feel defeated and even hopeless. When these negative emotions dominate, intrinsic motivation, instinctual optimism, and the desire to face new challenges will suffer.

As those familiar with our work are aware, there are numerous ways of helping children to feel more competent. For example, in the school setting, one must insure that we teach students in ways in which they can learn best, recognizing that all youngsters have different learning styles.

We know of one father who told us that his young son’s island of competence was doing artwork. The father told us that unfortunately, he was not interested in art. He ruefully said that he wished his son would enjoy sports, but his son showed little interest in athletics. However, this father also recognized that it was important to honor his son’s interests and strengths. He initiated registering for an art class with his son at a local museum. After just one art class he called to say what a wonderful time they had in class and how much he enjoyed observing the delight of his son as the latter displayed his competence in front of his father. Intrinsic motivation is borne out of such experiences.

Another strategy for fortifying islands of competence and intrinsic motivation is to provide youth with opportunities to help others. Individuals who are engaged in contributing to the well being of others experience satisfaction, feelings of competence, and an increased motivation to involve themselves in various tasks, even those that have proved problematic in the past. Examples we have used in the school milieu include: older students with learning problems reading to younger children; a hyperactive child being asked to assume the position of “attendance monitor,” which involved his walking around the halls to take attendance of teachers while the latter were taking attendance of students; and the use of cooperative learning in which students of varying abilities worked together as a team with each bringing his or her unique strengths to different projects. Contributing to the welfare of others also enhances noteworthy values such as compassion, respect, and caring.

At home, parents can involve kids in “charitable activities” such as walks for hunger or AIDS or breast cancer research. Being engaged in charitable work conveys to a child the important message that you are a valuable, competent person who has a great deal to offer the world.

One of the most far-reaching approaches to assist children and adolescents to feel competent is to lessen their fear of failure. This fear is especially heightened in students with learning problems. In schools, this fear can be addressed directly when teachers ask their class, “Who feels they are going to make a mistake or not understand something in class this year?” Before any of the students can respond, teachers can raise their own hand to initiate discussion of the ways in which the fear of making mistakes generates feelings of humiliation and impacts adversely on learning. Educators can share their own experiences making mistakes when they were students and can involve the class in a problem-solving activity by asking what they can do as teachers and what the students can do as a class to minimize the fear of failure.

Parents can help children to be more comfortable with mistakes by not responding with judgmental or derogatory remarks (e.g., “Were you using your brains?” “How often do we have to tell you what to do?” “What’s the matter with you?”). Rather, they can use mistakes as “teachable, problem-solving moments,” by offering a comment such as, “Things didn’t work out as you would have liked this time, but let’s think about what you can do differently next time.” When children do not feel they will be condemned or criticized for mistakes, their optimism and motivation will be heightened and they will be more willing to take realistic risks.

Concluding Comment

Instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation appear to be integral characteristics that reside in each child from birth. Similar to the seeds that we plant, these characteristics must be nurtured to reach their full bloom. Some seeds will require more care than others, but the time and energy we expend in this care will determine whether we witness the blossoming of optimism and motivation or the emergence of pessimism, resignation, and unmet potential.

About the authors:
Sam Goldstein Ph.D. is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah and Director of the Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Robert Brooks Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Selected References:
Brooks, R. & Goldstein, S. (2001). Raising resilient children. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Brooks, R & Goldstein, S. (2007). Raising a Self-disciplined child. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Brooks, R. & Goldstein, S. (2011) Raising Resilient Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-
. New York: Bantam Books.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Random House.
Goldstein, S. & Brooks, R. (2007). Understanding and managing children’s classroom behavior: Creating sustainable, resilient classrooms. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Lavoie, R. (2007). The motivation breakthrough. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Levine, M.D. (2003). The myth of laziness. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Margolis, H. & McCabe, P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation.
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Seligman, M., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., & Gillham, J. (1995). The optimistic child. New York: Houghton Mifflin.