The ABC's of Self-Motivation


The big, hairy, audacious goal[1] of both society and schools is for children to be supported holistically as they develop their individual potential and become lifelong learners who are self-reliant, creative thinkers and able to contribute to a vibrant and sustainable society in our changing world. ---- Wow!

When we look around a preschool circle time or a gaggle of children in grade 4 lined up after recess or through the cloud of social energy that hovers amidst students in grade eleven - what do we know about how to BEST maximize children’s self-motivation? How do parents, educators and community support people ensure that the roles they play in supporting children are making a difference?

Social scientists have made significant progress at answering these questions by connecting theories[2] about motivation to engagement, performance as well as to development. Children’s engagement (or disengagement) in school, families and community has a lot to do with whether their fundamental psychological needs for belonging, autonomy, and competence are being fulfilled. In other words, when children and youth feel that they have some control and choice, feel as though they belong to a group and are recognized for their competencies, they are more likely to be enthusiastic and motivated. Autonomy, Belonging and Competence are the new ABC’s.


Having autonomy[3] means doing something because you WANT to, not because you have to. It is the freedom and acceptance to follow personal interests and make choices based on personal values. “You should,” “You need to,” or “You must” do not support autonomy and can inhibit intrinsic motivation. For example, in one study,[4] a group of students who were asked to learn some material for a test were compared with students who were asked to learn the material with no mention of a test. The first group of students felt pressured and controlled and it was found that their interest level and what they actually learned was less than the other group. It has also been found that students who feel autonomous like school better and have higher self-esteem[5].

Action Ideas to Boost Autonomy:

  1. Provide opportunities for student participation in decision making.

  2. Give fewer lectures and ask for more student input.

  3. Focus less on memorizing facts and more on facilitating higher level discussions.

  4. Use less inflexible discipline and apply restorative justice practices[6].

  5. Plan for self-directed activities.

  6. Engage students in designing and defining shared responsibilities.

  7. Help children see the why behind the activity.

  8. Give choice (in topic or expression) in their learning journey.

  9. Minimize pressures related to assessment.


Belonging is now recognized as a fundamental element in human motivation[7]. A sense of belonging refers to the emotional and personal bonds that exist between people. In a school context, this sense of belonging is reflected in the degree to which students feel that they are cared for, respected and connected to other students[8] and their teachers. The emerging evidence of social neuroscience identifies that the relationship adults have with children is critical to long term learning outcomes as well as social and emotional development. This is true for both parents and teachers.

Action Ideas to Build Belonging:

  1. Ask students to do less independent seatwork and invite more cooperative learning.

  2. Reduce parent-school isolation by seeking family connections and exploring school-community partnerships.

  3. Give homework that involves activities with a family member (e.g. sharing an experience, identifying obstacles, articulating goals)

  4. Make it easy and acceptable to participate in extra curricular school activities[9].

  5. Develop ways to hear from students - honour student voice[10] in class and school-based decisions.

  6. Regularly take time to think about the children in your life in a reflective way. Consider how you act fully present with others.


Feeling competent happens when someone experiences pride in seeing their accomplishments and notices their own improvement. When a child feels confident and capable, his or her mind becomes open to new information.

Interesting research[11] has exploded myths about what feedback and rewards do to feelings of competence. Congratulating students for doing well on something that they initiated, unsurprisingly, increases feelings of competence and motivation. However, the same praise to a student for doing something that they were told to do or that they should do resulted in the child feeling more controlled, leading to reduced feelings of competence and motivation.

Action Ideas for Achieving Competence:

  1. Intervene in situations less and encourage more student problem solving.

  2. Reduce rewards by a greater emphasis on self-assessment.

  3. Consider language and timing of feedback[12].

  4. Include students in a cycle of observation, practice, applying skills in real-life situations and reflection.

  5. Positively acknowledge feelings and perspectives without judgement.

All 3 is Best!

The ABC’s are intricately connected. Research has shown that each on their own has positive influences on elements of motivation, however when addressed together, they maximize effects on not only motivation but also performance and development. The more we can encourage and satisfy all three psychological needs, the more engaged children become and the more long-term learning will occur. We will solidly be on our path towards the big, hairy, audacious goal!

In the business book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined the term: big, hairy, audacious goal. This refers to a goal that is emotionally compelling, strategic and possible.

Academic motivation theorists Ryan and Powelson (1991) talked with over 600 adolescents about their relationships with teachers, parents and friends and connected those with school adjustment, motivation and self esteem.

This definition of autonomy comes from Edward Deci, a scientist well-known for his theories in motivation and psychological needs. It forms the basis of self-determination theory.

A study of 91 fifth grade students compared their perceptions of whether their teachers were controlling or supportive of autonomy and their actual level of learning

The theory of self-determination suggests that a greater sense of choice, more self-initiated behavior and greater personal responsibility is an important developmental goal, and influences creativity, learning, and self-esteem. 


Dr. Brenda Morrison is one of Canada’s leading advocates for Restorative Justice, a process that puts the onus not on punitive measures, but on addressing the needs of the victims. 

In an academic review of the social side of education, researchers observe that "relationships" are now supported as the fourth "R" of schooling (along with reading, 'riting and 'rithmatic).

There is evidence to suggest that children who experience significant peer rejection and social difficulties during the elementary school years are at risk for school disengagement later on at the secondary level.

Students who actively participate in extracurricular school activities were associated with positive academic, psychological and behavioural outcomes.

Belonging and Autonomy are intricately connected. For example, one study found that 8th grade students who felt that they had a voice in school decisions also reported a greater sense of school belonging.

In a 1991 review of motivation and education, a number of studies are shared that examine how feedback (including rewards) influences motivation.

The authors write, "praising [children] for doing what they "should" have done or what you told them to do is likely to lead to their feeling controlled, which in turn would reduce intrinsic motivation and strengthen nonautonomous forms of extrinsic motivation."

Negative feedback "has generally been found to decrease intrinsic motivation by decreasing perceived competence."

In a study of 400 fifth graders, researchers learned that giving feedback, including praise, is motivating when the praise is directed towards the child's EFFORTS.