Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Children: A Humanistic Counseling Process

Article excerpt

Humanistic counselors working with children seek to help them grow and develop the motivation needed to make decisions and changes in their lives. Intrinsic motivation, an important component of humanistic counseling, is defined and explicated, research is reviewed, and suggestions are made for counselors who seek to foster intrinsic motivation in children.


An overarching goal of humanistic counseling is to assist people in their growth process so that they can better cope with current and future problems (Rogers, 1977). Within a humanistic framework, counseling is oriented toward helping people grow and develop the motivation needed to make decisions and changes in their lives, thereby becoming less dependent on others.

One important distinction in motivation is the difference between being intrinsically and being extrinsically motivated. In the scholarly literature, Intrinsic motivation has been defined as the desire to engage in an activity purely for the sake of participating in and completing a task (Bates, 1979; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). In contrast, extrinsically motivated behavior is any behavior that is motivated by external forces, such as the receiving of a tangible reward or the pleasing of another person.

The intrinsic motivation to meet academic, social, and psychological demands is an important predictor of children maximizing and reaching their potential (Gottfried & Gottfried, 1996). Intrinsic motivation is inversely related to anxiety (Gottfried, 1990) and depression (Boggiano & Barrett, 1992).

While intrinsic motivation has been discussed extensively in the fields of experimental psychology and educational research, it has received less attention in the counseling literature (Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001). The purpose of this article is to review current theory and research on intrinsic motivation and to discuss specific ways in which humanistic counselors may foster intrinsic motivation in children.

The overjustification theory dominates the intrinsic motivation literature and has received the most empirical attention (Aronson, 1966; Hennessey, Amabile, & Martinage, 1989; Lepper, Green, & Nisbett, 1973). According to the overjustification theory, providing external rewards (e.g., tangible rewards or verbal praise) for behaviors undermines and decreases intrinsic motivation for these behaviors. Some researchers maintain that extrinsic rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation (McGinnis, Friman, & Carlyon, 1999); however, many researchers have found evidence to support the overjustification theory (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999b; Dev, 1998; Edwards, 1994; Fair & Silvestri, 1992; Kohn, 1993; Lepper et al., 1973). Developmental issues in conjunction with motivation also have been considered (Gottfried, 1990). Most notably, researchers using meta-analytic techniques have found that the detrimental effect of tangible rewards tends to be stronger for elementary-age children than for college students (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999a) and that older children, in general, are less intrinsically motivated than younger children (Harter, 1981; Lepper, Sethi, Dialdin, & Drake, 1997).


Although grounded in operant conditioning (Skinner, 1953) and social learning (Bandura, 1969) theory and research, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are constructs that also are firmly rooted in humanistic traditions. Intrinsic motivation comes from internal mechanisms rather than external forces. Fundamentally, this means an intrinsically motivated person acts out of an internalized desire to self-actualize (Maslow, 1954, 1968). Conversely, people who act to achieve tangible rewards or to please others likely experience incongruence between their internal motivations and their actions, that is, a disparity between their real self and what is shown to the world (Rogers, 1951). …