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Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Updated: May 8, 2021

You hear a lot in Montessori circles about the importance of intrinsic motivation, but what exactly does it mean. Intrinsic motivation is when a child engages in a behaviour because they find it rewarding. They are performing an activity for its own sake rather than from the desire for some external reward. The behavior itself is its own reward.

The opposite of this is extrinsic (or external) motivation. Extrinsic motivation in young children refers to behaviour that is driven by external rewards such as excessive praise, rewards, threats of punishment, bribes, reward charts etc. It's not to say that all extrinsic motivation is bad and should be avoided all through life, however when it comes to young children it's invaluable to help build their inner confidence.

Children are born self-motivated and with an innate desire to learn. You don't have to do anything, it's built in naturally. Montessori simply helps to harness that appetite. This helps build on a child's self-worth and understanding of their own abilities. They grow and develop feeling confident that those around them trust that they are capable and useful members of the family.

There are plenty of ways that through Montessori we can help our children build their sense of intrinsic motivation. A few of these ways are:

  • Providing a prepared environment designed to help them succeed

  • Valuing the process over the end product

  • By valuing their desire to make choices about their lives

  • Modelling the behaviour we wish to see in them

  • By providing activities with a built in Control of Error, so they can work out for themselves whether they've done it correctly or need to reevaluate and try again

  • By observing and understanding where they are developmentally

  • By simply being gracious and thanking them for their involvement in the task

  • By supporting them to take responsibility for their actions

  • By using purposeful encouragement rather than abstract praise

But Montessori parents don't praise their kids I hear you say. This seems to be a popular misconception, but it's not really correct. We definitely do, but we chose to be mindful of the language we use to encourage and reaffirm our children. Language matters when it comes to instilling intrinsic motivation and small changes can really add up over time. We're all guilty of saying 'good job' to our children, and it's not the end of the world if you use it sometimes. Here are some alternatives that you could try to use too.

  • You did it!

  • I could see you concentrating really hard on that

  • That was challenging, but you stuck with it

  • What would you do differently next time?

  • That’s an interesting idea, tell me more

  • You look really proud of yourself

  • Wow, you put a lot of effort into that

  • Thank you, I really appreciate your help

  • I can tell this is challenging, do you need a short break?

Like all changes, it can feel funny when you start. The language can feel unfamiliar, but over time it'll become more natural. When the moment arises, take a moment before speaking. Just smile if need be to give yourself time to think about your choice of words. Simply being conscious of what you want to say will help you and your child. These small changes will go a long way to building your child's sense of intrinsics motivation, which is a gift that'll last them a lifetime.

Co-authored and edited by Mie Mari Sløk Rusdal and Jude Saffron

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