How to Foster Intrinsic Motivation in Your Young Learner

If you’ve ever watched your kid gleefully recount their encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs or quietly grow absorbed by the book they’re reading, then you’ve witnessed intrinsic motivation. It is the holy grail for educators and parents — an approach to learning that doesn’t need to be forced or instructed. It comes from within.

In this article, we discuss the psychological and educational definitions of intrinsic motivation, and explore how parents and kids can foster this critical soft skill.

If your young learner has a tough time staying focused at school — or if you just want them to get the most out of their education — keep reading.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation, Exactly?

The term pops up in business articles, self-help journals, psychological reviews and countless social media posts. But what does it mean, exactly?

According to psychologists, intrinsic motivation refers to self-made incentives. It is an entirely self-contained system of work and reward that doesn’t require external (or extrinsic) validation, pressure or consequences.

If that sounds a little too technical, don’t worry. The term has a more approachable definition in education. In the classroom, intrinsic motivation is when students complete tasks – work, homework, reading, projects, etc. – because they find them engaging and enjoyable. Not because a teacher tells them they must. Intrinsic motivation sparks a lifelong curiosity and love of learning that ensures students achieve their highest potential.

How to Foster Intrinsic Motivation

You can’t simply tell a high school student, “Be intrinsically motivated!” since that defeats the point. You can’t browbeat a person into finding personal satisfaction from their studies. They need to arrive at the enjoyment themselves.

Nevertheless, you can create an environment conducive to intrinsic motivation. Here are three strategies for fostering a young learner.

Let Their Interests Guide Them

Sometimes, we assume that every student needs to be a polymath – that they need to love every school subject equally. That’s not how the brain works. Instead, young learners naturally gravitate to things that interest them. To foster intrinsic motivation, emphasize those interests as a way to guide their studies.

For instance, if they love cars, then cars can be an entry point for engaging with subjects like physics, mechanical engineering, and even English! (Implore them to write an essay on how cars have shaped the world, e.g.).

Consider a Self-Paced Educational Model

Excellent self-paced schools like Ontario eSecondary School might be the ideal atmosphere for intrinsic motivation. These schools allow students to work at their own speed, spending longer on challenging subjects or topics that interest them. And because self-paced education requires students to keep themselves on task, they naturally learn how to motivate themselves, manage their time effectively, and connect with school materials without a teacher present.

Understand Their “VARK” Learning Style

The VARK model is an influential breakdown of the four main learning styles, pioneered by educationalist Neil Fleming in the late 80s. They are: Visual, Audio, Reading/Writing and Kinesthetic. Students tend to favour one learning style, absorbing information best when it’s in that format. For instance, an audio learner gets the most from spoken lectures, audiobooks, and verbally explaining concepts to others. If you want to foster intrinsic learning, meet your young learner on their turf with media that speaks to them.

Don’t expect to see an entirely self-motivated learner overnight. Still, explore these strategies to instill a love of learning in your kid that isn’t based on external rewards or consequences.