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Schooling at Home: 3 Factors That Encourage Internal Motivation

During COVID-19, I’ve been struggling with motivation with my transition to working from home. My eight-year-old daughter has also struggled with completing school work at home. It’s been a stressful time for parents and children whose routines have been turned upside down. It has made me think a great deal about motivation. How do we motivate ourselves? And how do we motivate our children in these uncertain times?

In “normal” times, students around the world stress themselves out to receive good grades at school. During COVID-19 learning at home, educators have wrestled with whether to give grades. Some feel grades should not be given during at-home learning, while others feel grades are important to keep children motivated to learn and hold them accountable. But how effective are grades? 

Are Grades Effective?

A growing body of research indicates that grades actually produce the opposite effect than intended. Researcher Susan Harter tested sixth graders on anagrams, a set of letters that are rearranged to form words. Harter gave the children three sets of letters – one easy, one medium, and one hard. She found that most children chose to do the harder puzzles, and were happiest when completing the harder puzzles. Harter then told a new group of 6th graders that they would be graded on the assignment as part of a school exercise. Children in this group chose easier puzzles, showed less pleasure while completing the task, and verbalized higher levels of anxiety.

“Grades can take an activity that we enjoy and turn them into a source of dread.”

–Laurie Santos, The Happiness Lab Podcast


Why is this? Grades are a form of external rewards. As teachers, parents, and facilitators, we may easily get into the habit of using external rewards, because they are easy, quick, and familiar. Sometimes, they work really well to change behavior in the short term. These types of rewards work so well for some students, in fact, that they may get addicted to them, often leading to high levels of anxiety or distress when they don’t receive high marks. The long-term costs can include the loss of our innate love of learning. 

Yellow building school in the DR


So, if grades are counter-productive, how do you encourage motivation to learn for children and young people? Experts agree there are three key factors that can encourage internal motivation: mastery, autonomy, and connection. FH incorporates these factors into its Cascade Group training with parents and caregivers of small children, where we talk about the need to feel “valued, effective, and connected” to build internal motivation. Let’s talk about each of these for a moment.

1. Autonomy

This is the idea that we want to be able to direct our lives. Autonomy leads to engagement in the learning process and offers children choices within acceptable limits over how they spend their learning time. For example, if children choose when to read and what they read, they are more likely to enjoy doing so.

2. Mastery

This is the idea that we like to get better at doing things. Nurture the things your child finds internally rewarding. Point out the progress your child has made over time. “I noticed that last week you were really struggling with those multiplication problems, but now after lots of practice, you seem to really understand them.”

3. Connection

This is the universal desire to feel connected to each other and find meaning from our work. Parents, participate with your child in the learning process (when you can!). Do a fun science experiment at home together. Read books together. Bring math into the kitchen while cooking. Here are some ideas for family learning.

Dominican Republic mother hugs her child and child stands in line in uniform at school

Anianna lives in the community of El Kennedy in the Dominican Republic. She dreams of one day becoming a doctor!

Schooling in the Dominican Republic

“I have been contacting FH through WhatsApp where I receive information, orientation, and have short meetings with a few people. This has been a very helpful tool during this time in dealing with homebound situations. For me, it has been a great support as a mother, and I know it has been for other parents in the community as well. I think it’s an excellent and helpful job for our community.”

Rosangela Durán, Dominican Republic


FH staff in the Dominican Republic have been integrating these factors into their support for families and communities. FH runs parenting schools in the DR, the goal of which is to build positive parent-child relationships and encourage learning beyond the classroom. During school closures, FH DR staff have created WhatsApp groups with these parents, ensuring a way to connect with each other during quarantine. FH provides age-appropriate family learning activities for caregivers to do with their children (connection). Families are encouraged to do these activities at their own pace (autonomy). Caregivers report seeing growth in child learning and development (mastery) as a result of parenting school activities. 

Understanding the True Meaning of Love

Priscilla del Rosario Santos is just one mother who has experienced a transformative experience spending time teaching her own children at home. Having previously left schooling up to teachers, Priscilla shares that she now knows how to better take care of her children.

“In this time of quarantine, I have understood the true meaning of love, and in turn, the great role that a mother plays in the care and upbringing of her children. For me it has been a great challenge since before I only limited myself to sending them to school and giving them what they needed. Now I feel connected to their emotions, tastes, and preferences in relation to the content and teaching plan. It has been a time of much learning for both my children and myself.

I always try to look for new examples of how to teach homework to my children and try to make them feel motivated and active. I understand that every day counts and that since my children are not in school now, the responsibility for them to learn is all mine. Using the resources that FH and the local school send me each week through WhatsApp, I try to share those lessons with friends and family. In fact, I identify cases in my community where caregivers need support and I share them with FH. They call those caregivers directly and look for ways to help them.”


Mother hugs daughter with a backpack going to school in Dominican Republic, showing orange exterior of house


Questions to Ponder

Home learning during COVID-19 is an opportunity for parents to encourage their children’s internal motivation and love of learning. Where grades are still assigned, try not to worry about them. Enjoy learning together while you can! These are just some of the questions we’re pondering. We’d love to hear from you as well!

  • How are your children handling at-home learning? Are they struggling with motivation?
  • Are you struggling to find motivation?
  • What strategies have worked for you in teaching your children?

Want to learn more about what motivates us? Check out this video animation.

Continue Reading:

How a Garden Became a Philippines Coronavirus Response

IDELA: 3 Case Studies Measuring Early Childhood Learning

5 Podcasts for Learning About Culture and the World