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Fostering Skills Spotlight: Motivation

The ability to motivate a child is one of the many skills you’ll develop as a foster carer. It gives the child drive and confidence to help them achieve their goals and overcome their difficulties – not just while they’re in your home, but as they grow and develop into adults.

When we talk about motivating children, we’re generally referring to three main areas, all of which are covered in this post:

  • Education – Having the drive to do their best work at school
  • Changing negative behaviour – And recognising the need to do so
  • Trying new activities – Going outside their comfort zone is incredibly beneficial

Motivate with praise and empathy

As a foster carer, your first priority is to provide basic care. The child needs to feel safe and secure in your home before you attempt to start motivating them in any of the other areas.

However, once these strong foundations are in place, the time’s right to begin to build the child’s self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. Motivation is a key part of this process and – whether your aim is to encourage them to work harder or to stop damaging behaviour – you’ll be more successful when you:

  • Praise the child for their progress and effort
  • Show empathy with their situation

Remember, no one is motivated to do things if they feel worthless; motivation and self-esteem are inextricably linked. Children who believe in themselves will naturally be more motivated in all areas of their lives.

Motivate by being a role model

Children observe, learn and often copy behaviour from those around them. As a result, you – and everyone else in your household – have a real opportunity to motivate the child by acting as a positive role model.

Obviously there are practical limitations; you can’t spend every day rock climbing or participating in a theatre production. However, if the child never witnesses you taking chances or trying new things, they’re far less likely to heed your encouragement to do the same.

If you’re willing to try things outside your comfort zone, you’ll spark an interest and make activities become appealing.

It’s important to recognise that you need to motivate for the short and long term. Don’t expect immediate success. Suggest a variety of activities, don’t force the issue and always listen to what the child enjoys.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to guarantee success. What’s overstimulating for one person is super exciting for another, so use your knowledge and understanding of the child to inform your efforts.

Motivate by setting targets and rewards

Targets and rewards are great motivators, especially when it comes to educational goals and achievements. Star charts can be very effective, even for teenagers. They work because the child or young person can see the progress they’re making on a day-to-day basis.

So, for example, if the child goes to school every day, they get a reward at the end of the week, month or term.

However, you need to be careful that the child isn’t motivated purely for the reward itself, but rather recognises the value of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s a delicate balancing act and often involves treading a fine line.

Ultimately, it’s important the child is engaged with their goal. That way, they’ll recognise the feeling of succeeding and gain a real sense of achievement when they get there. Once the reward and that buzz of success become interlinked, the child will begin to self-motivate. In other words, the feeling becomes the reward.

Motivate by helping the child recognise patterns

Another effective way of motivating a child – particularly when it comes to changing negative patterns of behaviour – is by helping them recognise their negative behaviour and take steps to change it.

Used by social workers and foster carers for over 20 years, Prochaska and DiClemente’s Cycle of Change model is based on the theory that individuals move through the following stages when attempting to stop unhealthy patterns of behaviour:

  1. Pre-contemplation – Not acknowledging that there needs to be a change
  2. Contemplation – Recognising there’s a problem but not committing to change
  3. Preparation – Getting ready to make a change
  4. Action – Changing behaviour
  5. Maintenance – Sustaining the change, with new behaviour replacing the old

Relapses are entirely normal, and that’s where the child goes back to the contemplation or pre-contemplation stage. It’s human nature is to follow the cycle, and every time the child makes it to the end they’ve made a huge achievement.

So look at the patterns with the child to see if it’s working – and encourage them to persevere. When doing so, make sure you emphasise progress and praise the child. Just saying ‘work harder!’ won’t have the right effect.

Make motivation a collective goal and responsibility

And that applies to self-motivation as well!

Sometimes foster carers feel that they’ve ‘tried everything’ without anything changing. But then you step back and see you’ve actually made progress.

Ultimately, motivation isn’t an individual aspiration or responsibility. Your whole household is part of it. When everyone is joined up and shares in the triumph, everyone gets something out of it. And that’s when you’ll find yourself becoming more motivated, even as you motivate the child.

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During your lunch break, or the time you spend checking Facebook, another child will come into care. Right now, that child is thinking: 'Who cares?' More Videos
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