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The importance of intrinsic motivation in children and in Montessori

Intrinsic motivation is something you'll hear lots about in the Montessori community and it is for good reason. It is a fundamental element of the method. So what is it?

Intrinsic motivation is the drive we have to do certain things, behave a certain way or partake in particular simply because you want to. You get an internal reward and it feels good! When you finish an assignment and you nailed it, or you help someone without any expectation of something in return. You are intrinsically motivated to seek that internal reward of satisfaction and enjoyment.


Now on the flip side is extrinsic motivation. This is when their is external factors playing a role in our choices. Such as rewards and punishments. For example when you go to work. Most people don't enjoy going to work, they do it because of the extrinsic motivation of being paid at the end of the month. Or when you really feel like keying that persons car for driving badly, you don't because of the external punishment of being arrested.


And this motivation exists within the child also, if we allow it too.


A child will naturally seek out to do what he feels is right, what he gets satisfaction and enjoyment from. To give a simple example, why does your child try to build that tower that keeps falling again and again? Because they have a natural intrinsic motivation to do it. Even if it's frustrating, they will have a great sense of joy, and achievement when they finally do it. It's the most powerful driving force to keep trying. The rewards are intrinsic.

When we interfere with this natural intrinsic motivation, and offer external rewards like money or sweets, or gives punishments like time out or removing a personal item. They lose the drive to do these things without being rewarded or without a punishment to deter them from doing so. The power of simply being satisfied becomes diminished. The rewards are extrinsic.


There is countless studies on this subject, some involving children. But the general overview is that of the more involvement of extrinsic rewards and motivation, the lesser role intrinsic rewards and motivation can play.


So why does Montessori encourage intrinsic motivation? Simply put, that is your childs inner voice. Their motivation and ethics for life are rooted in this. If they are taught from a young age the only reason to do something or behave a certain way is for reward, that's exactly how they will meet their school work, work life and relationships. They will only partake for what they can get out of it. Leading to the effort and end results being fairly poor and meaningless.


When we allow a child to listen to their intrinsic motivation and do things because they are intrinsically rewarded for it, they learn to do things for their enjoyment and satisfaction. Not for monetary value, or renown but for the simple fact it feels good for them. They are happy with the accomplishment in and of itself rather than being paid or externally rewarded for doing it. They can achieve amazing things purely because they want to.


In Montessori we foster a love of learning, we encourage independence and we do not reward or punish a child. Protecting that intrinsic motivation is important for a child to enjoy learning, to want to do things independently, to want to make kind gestures. Because the reward is intrinsic. They feel good doing it, they have the feeling of satisfaction and competence. Which is all the reward and motivation they need to persevere through tough tasks, behave in the "right" way and to love learning and love what they do.

You will rarely, if ever, hear a Montessorian overly praise a child for completing a task. You will often hear a "thank you" or acknowledgement of their efforts. Because verbal praise is an extrinsic motivator.


Simply saying thank you, allows the child to feel competent and satisfied just with the act of doing, not with the verbal approval from someone else for what they did. Acknowledging their efforts fuels the intrinsic motivation rather than squashing them by always saying "good job" because when they don't hear that "good job" they start to doubt their ability, and their confidence is injured.


Extrinsic rewards begins to become the motivator to do these things, needing that approval to feel like it was worth their while doing. Which is not what we want, if we want to raise happy, independent, and confident young children and eventually adults.


So if the opportunity arises for your child to volunteer to help feed the homeless for example, do you want them to WANT to do it because it feels good to help or do you want them only want to do it if they get praised or paid? That very well could be the difference between fostering intrinsic motivation, and destroying it with extrinsic motivation. Just some food for thought! :)



I believe Montessori is for everybody, I want to help everyone bring a little more Montessori into their homes and lives.


Montessoraus mama. x



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