Teaching children self-motivation

Most parents are familiar with using reinforcers, giving children positive feedback, and having a reward system in place to encourage appropriate behavior. Some children will not complete a 10-piece puzzle unless they are rewarded with verbal reinforcement, such as “Good job! Way to go!”

As children get older, you may notice that it is getting more difficult and much more expensive to reward them. Food, often the most cherished reward for young children, loses its attraction, and stickers may no longer be effective. You may find that you are using up all of the memory on your phone with video games, and you are running out of ideas of how to get your child to complete his chores without a tantrum. Perhaps you have heard him say, “I don’t care. This is stupid. You do it. I don’t want to do it.”

Of course, rewarding and reinforcing good behavior is important, but if overused, there is the possibility of shaping children into becoming overly reliant on praise and rewards. Sometimes children need to complete a task just because they have to, without it resulting in a reward. How do we get children to be self-motivated and complete tasks simply because it will make them feel good?

Here are 3 ways to teach your child self-motivation:


1Teach goal-setting

Teach your child how to set goals. Pick one day a week and help him create one goal. The idea is for him to eventually complete this task independently. However, he may require your guidance and support at first. His goal should be simple and concrete, such as, I will learn to write a capital B or I will throw a ball in the air and catch it. Then help your child to create three steps that he needs to complete to reach his goal. Throughout the week, help your child monitor his goal by reviewing which steps he has completed, and what he needs to do to complete the others. When creating a goal, include how much time it may take to complete each step, and schedule that time into his daily routine.

2. Model self-talk

Children learn many skills from modeling their parents. Therefore, practice saying your thought processes aloud in front of your child. For example, “I love being a teacher because I get to help students learn new information. Helping others makes me feel good.” Or, “Exercising makes me feel so healthy. It also helps me sleep better at night.”  Sometimes, it is difficult for children with autism to think outside themselves, so understanding the benefits of certain activities can be challenging.

Self-motivation means being motivated by internal rewards, doing something because it makes us feel good. However, self-motivation can sometimes require your child to think about the future, and how his actions are going to affect a bigger outcome. It may be a challenge for your child to use his imagination and see how his behavior is going to affect his future. For example, when you tell your child, “You have to study hard because it will help you get into college,” he may not have any concept of college because he has not experienced it yet. However, if you practice talking through your thought processes aloud, it will help your child understand that sometimes we have to do things with the future in mind. Allowing your child to hear your thoughts, will also help him understand what others are thinking and feeling.

3. Provide feedback and guidance

While the idea of teaching your child self-motivation is all about independence, it is still important for you to provide him with feedback. Let him know that you are proud of him and that he is doing a great job as he works on his goals. When you provide him with feedback, be specific. Try not to just say, “Good job,” but rather, “You are doing such a great job practicing your handwriting. Your writing is so much easier to read now.”

Then encourage him to recognize his own accomplishments and the amazing feeling that goes along with completing a task. You can ask him, “Are you so proud of yourself for working so hard?”

Don’t be afraid to offer suggestions and constructive criticism as well. For example, instead of saying, “You need to take more time to work on your goal,” help your child schedule this time into his routine. Say, “Every Wednesday at 4:00 pm is a good time for you to practice your baseball swing.”

Self-motivation takes practice. However, your child’s daily life will feel much more satisfying if he knows the value of completing a task because of how good it makes him feel.

Would you like access to more practical strategies? Be sure to check out my online program, Autism Solutions Blueprint.


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  • Joann sason
    Posted at 09:23h, 03 March Reply

    I work as a job coach with a 23 year old young man who is addicted to videos, and talks only in scripts all day. He is constantly smiling and laughing about obviously the images from the videos. I try to interrupt this process by telling him how to do his job correctly. He says he wants to be independent, but doesn’t know what that means , or how to get there by attending to instructions. Do you have any comments?

    • Jennifer Lingle
      Posted at 15:16h, 03 March Reply

      Thank you for your comment and question. I recommend creating videos of the tasks that you want him to complete. He is clearly motivated by videos. You can even record him completing tasks or find someone who is willing to be a model for this activity. Hope that helps.

  • bernice fafa gavey
    Posted at 14:41h, 03 March Reply

    hi Jen, good work done. very educative and encouraging to parents, hope i will get more self motivational words and teachings about autism to teach my daughter. thanks

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