How to Promote Motivation, Learning During Development

Tips: How to Promote Motivation, Learning During Development

Yesterday we started our look at motivation, specifically: What inspired it?

A new study by Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child — titled “Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture That Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation — examines the scientific connections between how a child’s brain develops and how a child grows into becoming a motivated adult.

While the study goes into the science, it also helps translate that science into actionable guidance for parents, caregivers, and practitioners.


Understanding these lessons is both important and challenging. As we previously noted in our piece on building character in children, there’s an early-learning connection not only in helping build motivation, but also character. This podcast addressed questions of: 

  • Why is it so hard to watch our children fail?
  • Why might a highly structured life for a child be a bad thing?
  • How important is our behavior, as adults, in the development of a child?

Tips to Promote Motivation

For the Harvard study, the authors note that “psychological research points to a set of promising approaches that parents and practitioners can use to promote positive motivation and learning during development.” Their tips include:

  • Follow babies’ lead. When interacting with infants, notice what they pay attention to, and engage with them around their interests.”
  • Elicit curiosity. Provide infants with opportunities to interact with new objects—and let them lead and learn!”
  • Encourage children’s playful exploration. When given the opportunity, children of all ages spontaneously engage in play. The ingredients of play are precisely the ones that fuel learning: play is intrinsically motivating, it presents an opportunity for novel experiences and for learning from others, it requires active engagement, and it can strengthen social bonds and reduce stress.”
  • Prioritize social interaction during learning. Recent research shows that young children can learn from digital media, such as touch-screen tablets, but social interaction during this learning experience appears to be essential.”
  • Challenge children just enough. Try to adapt a challenge according to a child’s current capabilities, and provide prompt feedback on his or her performance.”
  • Give children agency. Children are more motivated when they have some degree of self-determination, and can elect to pursue tasks that are personally meaningful. When they have a choice of projects, or at least a little wiggle room as to how a task gets done, children are more likely to stay engaged.”
  • Provide incentives only when necessary. When children are suddenly rewarded for something they enjoy and do freely, they may begin to do it only when they know they will be compensated afterwards. Wherever possible, harness children’s natural curiosity and inclination to work toward an achievable goal, rather than promising a reward.”
  • Praise the process rather than the outcome. When we praise children for their effort and help them see falling short as an opportunity to learn and improve (rather than simply focus on the outcome), they will be more motivated to work hard and more likely to believe that they can achieve what they put their mind to.”
  • Maintain a close connection with adolescents. High parental support and open dialogue are associated with fewer problem behaviors, including less substance abuse and delinquency. Be empathetic and supportive, knowing that youth are going through changes in their brains, bodies, and social relations that can make risky behavior appealing to them.”

Next: What are the public policy implications?

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

More Stories
knowledge gap
Closing the Knowledge Gap: How First Time Parents Can Become ‘Better Equipped’ for Child Development