A Unique Child

Motivating good behaviour

  • Motivating good behaviour

Children must learn that good behaviour is more than an effective means to secure a sticker, explains Sue Cowley…

Motivation is a complex area of human behaviour – what motivates one person may be irrelevant to another. Some people are motivated by financial gain, while others want to ‘make a difference’. Although in part we turn up for work each day to pay the bills, if it were only about the money we would have chosen to do something easier and better paid. Children, too, have a range of motivations for their behaviour. For some it’s about wanting to please the grown-ups; for others it’s about wanting to feel pleased with themselves. Small children have a natural desire to explore and discover, and extrinsic reward systems have the potential to dampen this drive.

The scenario

You have been considering whether the rewards system in your setting needs to be adapted. You’ve noticed that some children only seem willing to help tidy up if they get a sticker in return – when they do something good, they immediately look to see whether you are watching. Sometimes they ask, “What do I get if I do that?” You would like to move away from the use of extrinsic rewards, and start to explore intrinsic methods of supporting behaviour and learning.

Deferred gratification

In the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’, conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s, researchers researched motivation in young children. A researcher told the children that they could eat a single marshmallow immediately, but that if they could wait for 20 minutes, they would be given a second marshmallow to eat as well. The researchers found a correlation between the ability to ‘defer gratification’ and the children who settled most easily into educational settings.

As educators, one of our key goals is to help children understand why they need to behave in certain ways, even when it might not be immediately gratifying for them. The children need to see the links between their behaviour and their learning, preferably in terms of long-term success. This can be hard for them to conceptualise, especially at a young age. To help your children to understand…

1. Narrate the children’s behaviour, both the positive behaviours and the ones you want them to change. Talk about what they are doing and how it might affect other children and themselves. “When you share so beautifully, it helps David feel included in your game.”

2. Ask questions about feelings, to help the children build a sense of empathy. “How do you think it made Simona feel when the toy was grabbed from her?”

3. Encourage the children to develop self-discipline, by gradually extending the targets you set them.

4. Set challenges and use provocations, to help the children deal with frustrations and failures in learning. Encourage them to be comfy with making mistakes.

5. Support parents in linking motivation to learning and behaviour, by encouraging them to spot their children ‘doing the right thing’. Wow slips are a lovely way to do this, because they prompt parents to focus on the positive at home.

Extrinsic to intrinsic

In our setting, we don’t use extrinsic rewards like stickers or star charts (or any extrinsic consequences either). We see the learning as the ultimate motivation and try to keep our focus there. To move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivations for behaviour…

● Build a sense of teamwork, by using language such as ‘we’ and our’. Help children understand that behaving well is important, mainly because of how it impacts on others. Develop a ‘community of learners’.

● Work with your staff to help them understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Talk about their motivations for working in an early years role, and relate these to the children’s motivations for learning.

● When you encounter an issue with behaviour, consider whether there was something about the environment or the situation that might have contributed to it. What could you adapt to support the children in learning to behave? What was the child’s behaviour telling you that you might ‘need’?

● Talk constantly to the children about the reasons behind any rules you have. Get the children to consider the reasons for having these rules. What would happen if we didn’t have them?

● It can work well to focus on exploring one rule a week, and to talk lots with the children about the ‘why’ of the appropriate behaviour.

Sue Cowley is an educational author and helps to run an ‘outstanding’ preschool. Visit www.suecowley.co.uk or follow @Sue_Cowley