A key factor influencing children’s ability to self-regulate is whether or not they are sufficiently motivated to do so. When motivation is lacking, adults often seek to encourage positive behaviours by using external rewards such as stickers, treats or praise. Research in this area indicates that when adults rely on praise to shape children’s behaviour, this undermines children’s intrinsic motivation and results in an over-reliance on external rewards. If we are to take a behaviourist perspective, the implicit lesson being taught here is that a main reason for engaging in ‘good’ behaviours is to receive a reward. Children who are truly self-regulated are those who will engage in positive behaviours regardless of audience or reward (e.g., packing away their toys because it is time for lunch, even though they would prefer to keep playing). How can we foster children’s intrinsic motivation? One important way is through the use of encouragement around children’s processes by showing interest, asking questions and engaging in talk around what the child is doing or has done.
Scenario: After spending most of the morning play session building in the block construction area, Shaylan excitedly calls to an educator, asking her to come and see what he has made. As she approaches, the educator can see Shaylan standing proudly beside a very detailed structure and notes how much effort he must have put in to constructing it.
Praise and encouragement are not the same thing. While both acknowledge children’s behaviour, praise comes with a value judgement (e.g., ‘Wow, that’s such an amazing tall tower. You’re so clever.’) Encouragement, on the other hand, involves children in the process and encourages self-evaluation (e.g., ‘How were you able to build that tower so tall?’) Try it. Have a colleague show you something that they have done. How would you demonstrate your appreciation for this without the use of praise? Below are some ways that you can encourage children and foster their intrinsic motivation.
Demonstrate your interest in what they have done by playing alongside and participating in their play.
Ask open-ended questions, encouraging children to describe their ideas, efforts and activities. Questions should be genuine and relate directly to what the children have done or are doing. For example: ‘Why did you decide to use those particular blocks?’ or ‘Which part did you start building first?’
Acknowledge children’s ideas by making non-judgemental statements and describing what you see. Talk about what the children are doing rather than the children themselves. For example: ‘You’ve used many different kinds of blocks to build this. I can see you’ve spent a long time working on this.’ Avoid evaluating what they are doing. Engaging children in conversation also supports language development.
This is not to say that praise should never be used. There are times when praise is valuable. For instance, if a child helps another child you might say ‘Steven, I really like how you helped Shaylan sort the blocks at pack up time.’ It is the overuse of praise that can undermine children’s internal motivational systems.
This principle and associated practices are referenced in the following sources of evidence in the EYLF: