Does Intrinsic Motivation Strengthen Math Skills?


When it comes to education and learning, does motivation promote achievement or does achievement breed motivation? Supporters of self-determination theory believe that intrinsic motivation — that is, being engaged in an activity because of one’s inherent interest and enjoyment in it rather than due to an external reward or contingency — and academic achievement are mutually reinforcing; however, a new study may change the way we understand the role of motivation in learning.

Researchers from Quebec followed a sample of 1,400 students from first through fourth grade and assessed their self-reported intrinsic motivation towards math as well as their math abilities at three time points. The researchers found that over time children’s math skills predicted their feelings of intrinsic motivation towards math but, surprisingly, their intrinsic motivation did not predict their math skills. So, kids who started out good at math were more likely to find it inherently enjoyable and rewarding in the following years but those who started out intrinsically motivated did not necessarily improve their math skills.

These results have important implications for educators, especially those that teach math. Many new teaching approaches focus on increasing student motivation by making academic content more intrinsically enjoyable and interesting for students. For example, some schools use self-directed learning approaches with the goal of enhancing intrinsic motivation. Although these practices may be beneficial and aid student learning, bumping up motivation, specifically in math, may not be enough to promote academic achievement. As the results from this study suggest, students may need to experience success or feel competent in an academic area in order for them to become intrinsically motivated.

The results from this study are also interesting to think about in terms of Carol Dweck’s theory of growth vs. fixed mindset. It is likely very difficult for students to inherently enjoy a school subject if they feel like they are just not good at it. And these feelings of inadequacy can be long-lasting (I know many adults who still describe themselves as being bad at math or have self-diagnosed math anxiety). In order for children to be motivated they may also need to feel as though they are able to learn and develop their math skills regardless of how they are performing on tests. Promoting a growth mindset during the early elementary school years may be the key to enhancing motivation regardless of initial academic ability.

Why Emotions Matter in Early Education

Boy and Rain

Many people agree that emotional intelligence is a critical part of child development. But what makes children emotionally intelligent and how does a child’s understanding of emotions affect their academic performance in schools?

Recently, researchers from Penn State set out to answer these questions with a sample of 164 children from low-income families. All of the children were assessed on their ability to understand and label different emotional states as well as their literacy and numeracy skills at three time points across preschool and kindergarten. Teachers reported on their relationship with each child in their class as well as each child’s relationship with their peers. The researchers found that children’s emotion knowledge mediated the relation between interpersonal relationships and academic achievement. In other words, children who had positive relationships with their teachers and peers were more likely to recognize and understand emotions, which in turn led to improved academic skills. These associations were significant while accounting for children’s baseline achievement scores and cognitive abilities.

These results are critical because they support important theories on children’s social-emotional development. First, it has been proposed that children learn about emotions through close interpersonal relationships that they have with their parents, siblings, teachers, and peers. Positive interpersonal experiences allow children to make sense of how they, as well as others, are feeling. The more warm and supportive relationships that a child has, the more opportunities they have to learn about different emotional states.

Second, emotion utilization theory suggests that children’s ability to understand emotions makes it easier for them to turn emotional arousal into constructive thought and action. For example, if a child is feeling frustrated by their school work but they are aware of this feeling, and can label it as frustration, they can then seek out help from their teacher or a peer instead of becoming upset and disengaging from their work.

Overall, findings from the Penn State study highlight the importance of positive teacher-student and peer relationships during the early school years as well as the impact that emotion knowledge can have on children’s learning and development. It also has implications for the integration of social-emotional learning in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. There are several school-based programs, such as PATHS and RULER, that have been found to strengthen young children’s emotion knowledge. Given all of this research, its definitely time for emotional literacy to become a built-in part of early education.

What Are the Differences Between High- and Low-Achieving Schools?

Notepad Pencil and Calculator

A recently published study out of Florida State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has identified some key differences between high-achieving and low-achieving high schools. The researchers did a year-long comparative case study across four socioeconomically and racially diverse schools in Broward County, Florida. State test scores were used to identify schools as either high-achieving or low-achieving.

The researchers found that in the higher performing schools a deliberate effort was made among the staff to connect with students. In focus groups and interviews, students in the high-performing schools described teachers and staff as “caring” and “involved”. There was also more of an emphasis on getting to know the students and their backgrounds as well as additional extracurricular involvement and an overall positive school climate.

Interestingly, the high- and low-performing schools did not differ across the board. For example, all four schools showed strong internal and external accountability systems. There were also few differences across all four schools in the quality of instruction and use of an aligned curriculum.

So, does this mean that positive school climate is the secret to shrinking the achievement gap? Like all studies, this one had a few important limitations. First, this study was only done across four schools within a specific school district. It is difficult to say whether or not these findings would generalize to all schools across the country. Second, the researchers did not examine the effect of school climate on student achievement, but instead measured both things at the same time. This means that we don’t know if the climate affected achievement or vice versa. There may also be some other unmeasured variable that contributed to both school climate and students’ performance.

However, this is not the first study that points to the relationship between school climate and academic performance. Researchers have also shown that the emotional climate within a classroom can contribute to a student’s academic success and that school climate is related to student behaviors. Districts across the country have even implemented school-wide interventions with the aim of improving school culture and climate.

But what I find most interesting about the Florida study is its emphasis on the relationships between teachers and students. I think that school climate ultimately boils down to the way that teachers and students interact with each other on a daily basis. Do teachers take the time to get to know their students? Do students and staff treat each other with respect? Does social-emotional learning happen every day? For some teachers, fostering a positive relationship with their students is an inherent part of their job; however, other teachers struggle with this due to large class sizes and the pressure to raise test scores. In order to reduce the achievement gap we need to start thinking about how factors beyond instruction and curricula impact students’ academic skills and social-emotional well-being.

Is Universal Pre-K a Good Thing?

Girl in Garden

Findings from a recent study out of Vanderbilt University suggest that pre-kindergarten may not be benefiting students as expected. Half of the pre-k applicants in a Tennessee school district were randomly admitted to a full year of pre-k. These students were then assessed at the end of each year up until 2nd grade. Surprisingly, by the end of 2nd grade, the students who attended pre-k performed lower on a series of academic and behavioral assessments compared to those who did not attend pre-k.

These findings come up against earlier research on pre-k education, such as the Perry Preschool Project, and the Abecedarian Project— two high-quality early education programs that were associated with life-long positive outcomes. In fact, the remarkable outcomes from these two programs have served as the basis for implementing pre-kindergarten at a much larger scale.

So, in the Vanderbilt study, why did students who received a year of pre-k education perform worse than those who did not? Here are some of my thoughts…

Are we measuring the right thing?

Most of the assessments used in the Vanderbilt study were standardized tests of academic ability. Some scholars have argued that we need to also be looking at how these early childhood interventions impact more broad aspects of child development. As I have mentioned before, children’s social-emotional competencies are important indicators for predicting long-term outcomes. It may be important to look at how pre-k programs are influencing non-cognitive skills, such as prosocial behaviors, self-management, and social relationships.

Is it too early?

Another thing to consider is that the effects of pre-k education may not appear until later in development. For both the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian project, the critical outcomes (like education attainment, employment, marriage satisfaction) could not be identified until the participants reached adulthood. Therefore, the true impacts of pre-k may not be truly evident for another few years (or even decades!).

Is the quality high enough?

An important aspect of both the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project was that they were “high quality” programs. Both programs consisted of an extremely small student to teacher ratios and focused on developing certain skills in young children, such as language development, decision-making, and self-reflection. When we start to implement pre-k at larger scale one of the biggest issues is maintaining that high quality. Unfortunately, universal pre-k may start to look a lot like regular kindergarten and elementary school in general. In other words, pre-k may become highly regimented with a strong focus on discipline and academic standards, and less time for exploration and free play. It’s a scary thought but perhaps the pre-k kids in the Vanderbilt study were simply burnt out by their 3rd year of formal education.

What are kids getting otherwise?

Finally, we need to consider what kids who don’t attend pre-k (i.e., the control group) are getting and why that could be beneficial as well. It is quite possible that some three and four-year-olds may be getting what they need developmentally outside of a formal school setting. They may be taken care of in their home or at a community daycare and provided with books and positive interactions with a variety of caregivers. These non-pre-k students may also be getting more one-on-one time with adults compared to those in larger pre-k classrooms. Instead of seeing pre-k education as a universal need, we may need to scale back and offer the highest quality to those at the most risk while also figuring out what skills are most important to focus on during these early years.

Four Reasons Why Social-Emotional Skills Should Be Taught in Schools

Whenever I tell people that I study social-emotional learning in schools I  get an interesting range of reactions. Some people get it right away. Others immediately want to talk about this video or Daniel Goleman. But, I sometimes encounter a few people who say, “isn’t teaching social-emotional skills a parent’s job?” My answer starts with “yes, it definitely is, but…”

Reason 1: Kids spend a ton of time in school.

It is estimated that elementary school students in the U.S. spend an average of 943 hours in school per year. With all of this time spent in school it is just logical and practical to teach kids skills that they will need throughout their lives. Even if parents do take the time to model and teach skills like self-awareness, perspective-taking, and empathy is important to continue to reinforce these skills in schools and classrooms in order for them to really stick.

Reason 2: Schools are social and emotional environments.

Most children form their first friendships in school. It is also where they will likely experience social exclusion, bullying, and other interpersonal issues. At school, kids have to learn how to get along with those who are different from them. It is almost impossible to ignore these types of challenges and issues in schools and classrooms.

Reason 3: Social-emotional skills are necessary for academic learning.

Imagine trying to teach a classroom full of students who lack self-regulation, do not get along with others, and are not aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others. Social-emotional skills serve as a critical foundation for academic learning and studies have shown that social-emotional learning leads to gains academic achievement. Social-emotional learning and academic learning should go hand-in-hand.

Reason 4: Many children do not learn social-emotional skills at home.

If you are a parent reading this blog you most likely do teach your child social-emotional skills, either implicitly or explicitly. However, many parents, for various reasons, do not teach, model, or reinforce these skills at home. All children deserve the opportunity to learn how to manage their own emotions, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Schools are powerful settings because they have the ability to reach almost every child.

The Links Between Cognitive Skills and Altruism

Last year, I worked on a research study evaluating the outcomes of a video-based social-emotional learning program for early elementary school students. Part of this study involved conducting one-on-one assessments with kindergarten to 3rd grade students to measure specific social, emotional, and cognitive skills. These assessments included multiple-choice style questionnaires, computer-based tasks, and stories that involved identifying different characters’ emotions. But one of the more interesting assessments we used was called “The Stickers Game”.

In this game, each child was presented with ten very cool stickers and told that they were to decide how many of the stickers they wanted to keep for themselves and how many they wanted to give to another child; however, they did not know this other child and they would never get to meet them. The children made this decision on their own by placing the stickers they wanted to keep in an envelope with their name on it and the stickers they wanted to donate in a blank envelope. The children made their decision while us, the researchers, were not looking. The goal of this game was to understand children’s altruistic behavior.

What we found was quite interesting: children who had high scores on the computer-based cognitive task (specifically, the one that measured inhibitory control), were more likely to donate more of their stickers to the unknown child. What’s more interesting is that we were not the first researchers to find this. A study done in Columbia also found a significant association between scores on a similar cognitive task and an altruistic sharing game (they used candies instead of stickers), among preschool and kindergarten children.

So, what do these results mean? Inhibitory control—the ability to focus on important stimuli while inhibiting unimportant stimuli—and other self-regulation abilities likely play a role in children’s altruistic sharing. In order to shift from thinking about themselves to thinking about another individual, children must be able to regulate their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Cognitive skills contribute to children’s ability to think about the needs of others and even take on another person’s perspective.

Because our results are correlational and cross-sectional (i.e., all of these assessments were done at the same time), we cannot make any assumptions about whether improved cognitive skills leads to altruistic sharing or vice versa. It may be that these skills and behaviors mutually enhance each other across development. It is also possible that some other factor is influencing the development of both of these competencies. Despite the fact that more research is needed in this area, what we found still points to the connections between skills like attention, self-regulation, and inhibition, and prosocial and altruistic behaviors. And the good news is cognitive skills are malleable!

My Thoughts on Bullying

Results from a new study may change the way we think about bullying. Researchers from Simon Fraser University found that adolescent bullies had higher self-esteem, fewer depressive symptoms, and higher social status than their non-bully peers. Based on these findings, the researchers proposed that bullying might be adaptive (rather than maladaptive) and that there may be genetic links to bullying behavior.

Bullying has become quite the hot topic over the past decade and millions of dollars have been invested in trying to understand and prevent it. However, research on bullying has yielded mixed findings and programs aimed at reducing bullying have been largely ineffective. So, what should we do about bullying?

First, I think it is important to remember that bullying is an umbrella term that encompasses any kind of abuse that is targeted and repeated. It can include physically hurting another individual, being verbally abusive, excluding an individual, or spreading rumors about someone behind their back. Different forms of bullying require different approaches and strategies. There are also likely to be many causes for bullying. Stating that bullying is due to one’s genetics is a big generalization.

Second, I agree with the authors on the study that some degree of bullying behavior may be “hard-wired” or developmentally normative. As children develop into adolescents, it is normal for them to seek out ways to be independent, have power, and be in control. This is also a time when children begin to experiment socially and test out the limits of their power in social situations. However, saying that some amount of bullying is normative for children and adolescents is not the same as saying that its okay and that we should just accept it in all of its forms. Instead, understanding the underlying need that bullying may be fulfilling can help us figure out better strategies for reducing it as well as preventing negative long-term outcomes associated with it.

What can parents, teachers, educators, and camp counselors do?

Although each bullying incident is different and may require different approaches, here are three general strategies that can be useful when trying to prevent bullying, stop bullying before it comes extreme, or prevent negative long-term outcomes associated with peer victimization.

  1. Support the victims

Studies on bullying have shown that high quality friendships can help protect victims from negative long-term outcomes. This can be difficult if an entire classroom or cabin is picking on or excluding one child. Perhaps this child could be given opportunities to interact and bond with children in a different setting or with children of a different age? Figure out something that this child is interested in and see if you can use that to help them form a connection with a peer who has similar interests.

  1. Create opportunities for bullies to be leaders

This is not just true for bullies, but for all children and adolescents who are popular have social power. Support them in using their power and influence in a positive way. Put them in charge of a group activity or class project. If there is something they are good at (other than bullying), have them teach it to others.

  1. Promote social-emotional learning and development!

This includes teaching and modeling prosocial behavior, empathy, perspective-taking, self-awareness, self-regulation, and responsible decision-making. This also means providing opportunities for children and adolescents to think about themselves, their behavior, and the effect that is has on others. Social-emotional learning may not prevent all bullying from occurring but the hope is that it can give children a foundation of skills so that they are more likely to stop and think before they act, put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and develop and maintain positive relationships.

How I Discovered Social-Emotional Learning

After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I was applying for grad programs and wanted to get some experience working with a professor on a research project. I knew that I was interested in child psychology but wasn’t sure exactly what specific area of child psychology I wanted to pursue. Through a family friend, I was introduced to a researcher at York University in Toronto. She was looking for a research assistant to help with her study evaluating the outcomes of a social-emotional learning program called The Roots of Empathy.

In The Roots of Empathy program, a mother and baby make visits to an elementary classroom once a month throughout a school year. With the help of a trained instructor, and an extensive curriculum, the baby is used as a springboard to teach the children about emotions, empathy, perspective taking, and infant development.

This program made complete sense to me. Not only did I think that bringing a baby into the classroom was genius, but I also became aware of the benefits of teaching social and emotional skills in school. Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, social-awareness, and relationship skills are all critical life skills. With all the time that children spend in school, shouldn’t we be promoting competencies that will contribute to their overall positive development?

These questions led me to a graduate program that was focused on social-emotional learning and development and gave me the opportunity to work with some of the leading professors in this field. I have spent the past four years studying whether these social-emotional learning programs do what they say they do and also investigating other ways that social-emotional skills can be promoted in childhood and adolescence. Seeing the importance of social-emotional skills, through my own experiences working with children and through research, has added to my passion for social-emotional learning and my desire to share its importance with other researchers, educators, parents, camp counselors, and anyone else who works with children.

Can children’s behavior in kindergarten predict how they will turn out?

The results from a study published this summer in the American Journal Public Health seem to suggest so. In the early 1990’s, 50 kindergarten teachers, across four states, were asked to rate their students’ social competencies including the degree that each child “cooperates with peers without prompting”, “is helpful to others”, and “is good at understanding feelings”. After following-up with these same children 19 years later, the researchers found that the teacher ratings of students’ social skills were related to some astonishing long-term outcomes. For example, children who were rated as having high levels of social competence were more likely to graduate from high school on time, achieve college degrees, and have stable employment. On the flip side, children who scored low on the social skills assessment were more likely to have been arrested in early adulthood for a severe offence. Importantly, social competence in kindergarten predicted these outcomes over and above the influence of demographic factors, such as child race, socioeconomic status, and the level of violence in their neighborhood.

How can one’s social competencies so early in life predict such extreme outcomes in early adulthood? Some developmental researchers explain these associations between early childhood and adulthood in terms of a developmental cascade. For example, a child who is good-natured, easy-going, and able to get along with their peers will most likely be able to develop strong, positive, relationships with peers as they continue to develop. In addition, having a positive relationship with one’s teacher can allow a child to thrive in school by feeling motivated and engaged. On the other hand, when children are not able to get along with other kids and behave in ways that are difficult for a teacher to manage they are more likely to become isolated from others and be punished for their negative behavior. This can result in difficulty forming positive relationships as well as less motivation and engagement in school.

Does this mean that children with poor social competencies in kindergarten are destined to become high school dropouts and criminals? The short answer is no. Although children with poor social skills may be at a higher risk for some of these negative outcomes, there are many opportunities between kindergarten and adulthood to interrupt these negative developmental pathways. Understanding that development occurs like a cascade also helps us see the opportunities that we have to promote positive development. From my own experiences working with children, I know how difficult it is to empathize and have positive interactions with children who have poor social skills. These are often the children who do not listen, are disruptive, and have difficulty getting along with their peers. However, it is becoming more and more clear that these are the children who are at the highest risk for a host of negative outcomes and therefore need the most attention, help, and patience. Evidence has also been showing us that children’s social-emotional skills are malleable and can grow with lots of positive role-modeling, practice, and support from teachers, parents, other adults, and peers. This highlights, once again, the importance of embedding social-emotional learning into our education system.