Building Your Child's Internal Motivation is Key to Them Learning How to Roll, Crawl, Stand and Walk

By Michael J. Workman PT

The term internal motivation refers to your child's inner drive or desire to move. Many children will have to overcome a tremendous amount of physical or cognitive interference in order to move, explore and learn.

For example, some children have to overcome muscles and joints that are too tight or too loose and other children must overcome nervous systems that are unbalanced or incompletely developed. Some children must overcome cognitive-perceptual systems that are not processing well. Whatever the situation, it is your child's internal motivation which also helps them overcome the interference of their body, in order to move and explore.

I believe that as your child explores the world around them it fuels their desire to explore more. When a child's body interferes with the exploration process by making movement difficult, internal motivation is often affected.

Internal motivation must be distinguished from external motivators, which are the toys, objects, people, pets and household places that you will use to try and spark your child's internal motivation.

As with all of us, some children have more internal motivation to move than others. What are you supposed to do when you would really like your child to move but they don't seem as interested or excited about it as you would like? You tried putting them on the floor with fun toys around them at an easy distance away, but your child just doesn't move.

The following steps are what I have my clients do to help build this internal motivation so that eventually their children will want to get to the external motivators we place before them.

1. Take your child to the world to explore! Take them around your home to explore the things that they would normally get into if they were typically developing. The kitchen, the bathroom, the basement, the closets, the laundry room, and the bedrooms all have drawers and interesting hiding places that they should see and explore. (Of course, make sure they avoid the dangerous stuff). I have clients motivated by shoe racks, doggie doors, drawers with junk in them, toilet paper, bookshelves, purses and so on...

Take your child around to explore several times a day. Teach other people who spend time with your child, like grandparents, babysitters and daycare providers, to help them explore as well. You will be amazed at how well this works to get your child excited about the world. Suddenly, moving to explore seems more worth it to them!

2. The second step is to put your child someplace like a highchair or other chair appropriate for their size where they are completely supported. The objective is for them to use two hands in combination with their eyes in order to play. You should give them as much support as they need so they are not working at all to sit up, and can concentrate on their exploration. Having a tray or table in front is recommended. Next, you assist them as needed to explore, problem solve and play with two hands while working visually to figure out a toy or object. Give them some time with an item and then rotate some others through. As always keep your time periods short to best meet your child's tolerance.

3. Build upon your child's internal motivation further by creatively combining the first and second steps to promote movement. The positive reinforcement of movement itself then builds upon the child's internal motivation even more.

Imagine the kind of challenging situation described below, and then consider the strategy which follows:

You would really like your daughter to roll or crawl so she can explore your home, but she doesn't seem all that interested in the toys and objects that you are placing around her in order to encourage her to move.

Getting a little frustrated now, you place more toys and objects to see if you can find anything that will rouse the motivation, but nothing works. You also try working on the rolling techniques your therapist showed you to see if that helps. You find that it does help, and your daughter enjoys playing with the toy when you roll her to it - but you just can't seem to get her to initiate it by herself.

Deciding to work on your child's internal motivation, you implement the first step above...

You pick your daughter up and take her into the kitchen with you. You find some stainless steel mixing bowls that make great sounds when she hits them with a spoon. You take her to the pantry and help her shake cereal boxes. After a few minutes you take her to the bookshelf in the living room where, with help, she begins to pull out the DVD cases and drop them to the floor. By helping her get to places that would normally be too difficult, and that are fun, you steadily build her internal motivation to want to explore her home.

Then you use step two above to continue building your child's internal drive to explore. You decide to put her in a high chair and you give her full support because she's not sitting well yet. You put hand towels, small pillows and other things around her so she is barely working at all to sit up. You then put the tray on and begin to play with her for as long as she will tolerate it, helping her explore toys that require her hands to work in combination with her eyes, strengthening her important visual-motor skills.

Cause-and-effect toys work well for this. They are called cause and effect because if you do something to the toy (the cause), then there is a reward (effect) as a result. For example, "pop-ups" are like this: your child pushes a button on a toy, and Elmo pops up and sings a quick tune.

Because your child is not exerting a lot of physical power in order to sit up to play, she can devote her entire energy to the exploration of the toy. As she continues exploring the toy, she finds that it is fun and internally rewarding. Thus she begins to generate her own enthusiasm, and you realize that she enjoys exploring several other objects while sitting in the highchair.

Each day, continue helping her explore your home and continue giving her opportunities to play as much as she would like, while she sits in a supported position. You swap out various objects that she enjoys and she's having a great time while not working too much physically to get the reward of exploration and play.

Now you decide to test her internal motivation to play and explore by using the third part of the strategy outlined above. You take one of the objects that she enjoys in sitting and place it close to her on the floor. You show her (if needed), how to roll or move to it a couple of times, then you give her an opportunity to do it herself.

What you will often find is that since your child is used to exploring the toy and knows what it's about, she will have more drive to overcome some of her body's physical interference in order to play with that toy.

However, you may find that she is still not quite motivated enough to move to the toy until you decide to take the toy and put it close to the drapes in the front room that she enjoys pulling on when you put her next to them. Now you find that when you place the toy next to the drapes and your daughter is a couple of feet away, she will roll and go for the toy, and spend some of her time pulling on the drapes. You did it!

Building your child's internal motivation takes continued creativity and patience.
You will always be searching for new and different external motivators to help spark your child's internal motivation.

This tip is helpful no matter what developmental positions your child is having trouble overcoming. From rolling and crawling to sitting, kneeling, standing, and more, if you continue to build internal motivation by helping your child explore, there will be a greater chance your child will want to move more independently on their own.

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