Positive Education - Tips to motivate your child


We all know that our behaviours and those of our children are motivated by ‘rewards’, whether it be a sense of personal achievement or ice cream!

‘Self-Determination Theory (SDT)’ is a key concept of Positive Psychology. It’s a great framework that you as a parent can use to motivate your child. Think about a CAR, what does it do? It drives us. SDT is the same, it suggests three psychological needs that drive us, the needs to feel Competent, the need to have Autonomy and the need for Relatedness (CAR).

According to the theory, there are three main ways to motivate your child:

  • C - Give them something to ‘master’ (‘competence’) – we all have an in-built desire to ‘master’ skills or tasks.
  • A - Give them choice (‘autonomy’) – if your child needs to say, put out the rubbish bins, do their homework or mow the lawn, give them a choice of which one they do first.
  • R - Let them do it together (‘relatedness’) – doing a task with group of friends is more fun.
An important part of CAR is ‘autonomy’. As humans, we all like to feel like we are independent and in control. 

The goal is to move the extrinsically motivated activity (doing something because you have to) to become intrinsically motivated (doing something because you like it or value it). There isn’t a silver bullet here but you can foster the intrinsic when you encourage autonomy (ask don’t tell, give choice where possible), relatedness (a sense of belonging) and competence (praise effort, and small steps towards mastery, use the power of ‘yet’).

For the activities that your children love to do, you just need to get out of the way and let the intrinsic motivators run the show (hopefully this isn’t just for video games). 

For the less enjoyable (read: everything you actually want your child to do’), you are going to have to be a bit more ‘proactive’ (read: find your inner politician/salesman). You need to try to tap into your child’s world a bit. For the younger, make it fun. For the older, you may need to provide more tangible rewards once CAR have been put in place.

While getting a child to do homework for some extrinsic reward is not ideal, when they start to display competence and have improved results in class they may start to find more value in the success they have created than receiving a bag of lollies. This might lead them to being intrinsically motivated in the future. 

Likewise, group study sessions (if given a bit of monitoring and structure) can turn English revision into an experience with relatedness, making it much more intrinsically enjoyable.           

I look forward to sharing more tips and concepts from Positive Psychology in the future.

Mr Matt Cavallaro, Academic Advisor – Knox Positive Psychology Institute

Further readings
Deci, E.L. and Ryan, R.M. (2000), “The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior”, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 11, pp. 227-68.

Robinson, P. (2016). Practising Positive Education: A guide to improve wellbeing literacy in schools. Sydney: Australia: Positive Psychology Institute.