Tapping in to Instrinsic Motivation

Youth develop and sustain motivation by doing work that matters to them.

Youth must find the motivation to attempt to reach the project goals they have set and maintain that motivation over the long haul. The motivation youth tap into often comes from different sources. The emotional connections youth have with their peers and staff in the program are one source of motivation as they desire to give to people they care about and want to support collective goals. Relationships with other members of a group are very powerful, energizing, and motivating. Shared goals provide powerful reinforcement for motivation.

Youth develop motivation as they:

  • form connections with collaborators;
  • build skills and confidence; and
  • see the value in the work for their futures (adult roles and career), their communities, and the world.

The greater the personal connection youth have to their work, the more powerful their motivation and cognitive engagement becomes. Youth’s growing sense of confidence and pride as their skills improve is another source of motivation. In fact, confidence isn’t just a source of motivation, it’s a prerequisite for initiative. Brett Hart, Executive Director at Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory (PWBF), described the strength-based process by which they address this obstacle. He also described how increasing skill and motivation reciprocally reinforce each other:

“We hear students frequently state that they are “no good” at something, perhaps when math turns up in building or sailing. How can one be motivated to do more, when they feel they are “no good”? Our program uses a strength-based approach to youth development. Adopting this approach required subtle but important changes in our interactions with youth. The basic concept is to find strengths and create new competencies, and then to embrace these areas, holding youth to high expectations. The actual gains may be modest, but through focusing on the work accomplished, students’ pride soars—sometimes they literally beam—and this legitimate pride translates into motivation to explore more, push further. Small successes beget increased effort in a feed-forward loop. Our staff members understand that youth are experts in their own situations. Motivation can’t be delivered in a fancy speech or learned from someone else. If we try to affect change though “good advice” based on our own expertise—no matter how insightful or emotionally charged—rather than through empowering youth, we negate their autonomy and potentially undermine their competence.”

Another important source of motivation is when youth see that their work in the program matters or that it has meaning. They may see that they are developing skills that will later translate into a job or be valuable in adult roles. Or, they may see that the work they are doing in community action projects can change their community for the better. Youth’s discovery that their work mattered to their community also became a powerful motivator: They gained a sense of purpose. Below, Natalie Cooper of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM) talks about the importance of youth being heard in their community:

I think the point where the kids start talking to us about their future and their collective community being a part of that vision is huge as well. Their lens has changed, and it’s not about the autonomy itself, but about the community and how they can impact their community.

Further Reading

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How do you help youth sustain their motivation to achieve goals?