10 Ways to Foster Intrinsic Motivation in Teenagers

As a teacher I was often asked, ‘What makes a good student?’ My answer was simple: A good student is someone that shows up to class, listens, does their schoolwork and asks for help when they need it. The best students, in my opinion were motivated to help themselves. They weren’t necessarily the most academic ones and even the students who were just aiming to graduate were also ‘good students’. They had their future firmly in their sights and knew that they needed to get a good education to get ahead. It was all about intrinsic motivation – students knowing that they needed to work or study because it would help them. In psychology, this is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. Good students didn’t need to rely on extrinsic motivation from outside positive or negative influences to get by. The good students just got on with it! But teachers and parents are there to help kids – so how can they get kids motivated to succeed? Here are Ten Ways to Foster Intrinsic Motivation in Teenagers:

Create a Supportive Environment: Provide a safe and open space where teenagers feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, ideas and feelings without judgement. Encourage open communication and active listening, showing genuine interest in their concerns. Acknowledge their achievements, efforts and progress, no matter how small. Teachers are great at this, especially in primary school, with stickers and motivational stamps on their work! But as kids get older, the focus shifts to academic success and kids don’t seem to be celebrated anymore. Even my 22 year old still likes to be praised! Teens still need validation from their teachers, even if it’s something small like a candy bar or a phone call home to tell their parents how well they’re doing.

Offer Autonomy and Choice: Involve teenagers in decision-making processes, allowing them to have a say in matters that affect them, such as setting goals, planning activities, and choosing projects. Give them room to explore their interests and passions, even if those interests differ from your own. This is where ‘project-based learning’ really comes to the fore for teens. Getting them to plan their own project and really take ownership of their assessment is guaranteed to get better results that a topic assigned by the teacher.

Set Meaningful Goals: Help teenagers set clear, achievable, and personally meaningful goals. These goals should align with their interests and values, and they should be challenging enough to spark their motivation but not overwhelming. Break down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps to create a sense of progress and accomplishment. A classroom goals chart like the one below, is a great way to manage this! This is for a third grade class but even teens can benefit from goal setting.

Encourage Mastery and Skill Development: Emphasize the importance of learning and growing rather than focusing solely on outcomes or grades. Help teenagers develop a growth mindset by praising their efforts, strategies, and perseverance rather than solely their innate talents. Provide opportunities for skill-building and improvement, allowing them to see tangible progress over time. Sounds corny but inspirational posters in the classroom are a great way to help teens develop this valuable growth mindset.

Promote Curiosity and Exploration: Encourage teenagers to explore a wide range of interests and activities, fostering a sense of curiosity and a love for learning. Offer exposure to new experiences, whether through books, movies, travel, or conversations, to broaden their horizons and spark their interests. When I was in primary school, we watch ‘Behind the News’ each week to help broaden our understanding of what was happening in the world. We also had after school crafts once a week where we learned how to cook, make our own paper, weave baskets and make pottery!

Connect to Values and Purpose: Help teenagers identify their core values and interests, and explore how these align with their goals and aspirations. Discuss the impact and contribution they can make to their community, society, or the world through their actions and choices. Many private schools offer community service programs that are compulsory. My all-girls school required us to do one term of Community Service in the place we chose. I did mine at Brisbane City Mission – sorting clothes. It was an excellent way to help me check my privilege and help others.

Provide Constructive Feedback: Offer feedback that is specific, constructive, and focused on the process rather than just the outcome. Encourage teenagers to reflect on their experiences, learn from mistakes, and adapt their strategies for improvement.

Encourage Intrinsic Rewards: Help teenagers recognize the intrinsic rewards of their efforts, such as a sense of accomplishment, personal growth, and enjoyment. Guide them to find joy in the process of learning and pursuing their interests, rather than relying solely on external rewards.

Model Intrinsic Motivation: Be a role model by demonstrating your own intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and passion for learning and growth. Share stories of your own experiences with challenges, setbacks, and successes, highlighting the importance of intrinsic motivation.

Be Patient and Flexible: Intrinsic motivation takes time to develop, so be patient and understanding as teenagers navigate their own paths. Be willing to adapt your approach based on their changing interests, needs, and goals.

Remember that fostering intrinsic motivation is an ongoing process that requires consistent support, understanding, and guidance. By creating a nurturing environment that values autonomy, personal growth, and curiosity, you can help teenagers develop a strong sense of intrinsic motivation that will serve them well throughout their lives.

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