At the beginning of my early care and education career, I figured out that children like to be praised. Whenever I wanted children to follow along or cooperate, I would praise them. After prompting children to clean up, I would purposefully and somewhat loudly say things like, “I like the way Sarah is cleaning up.” I noticed that a majority of the children, beginning around 24-30 months of age would do what Sarah was doing because they wanted the same recognition. This made the day much easier, which in this field can make life easier.
There is nothing wrong with easy, right? What if I said in this instance it could be?
The tactic that I had been using was a form of praise and some would say manipulation. The reason the children were cooperating was because they were getting positive feedback from me and they knew that they were making me happy. Although the children were cooperating and “doing the right thing,” they were learning to do the right thing because it made me happy. I wasn’t teaching them that when we are finished with something we clean it up. I failed to guide them in learning what the expectations were about cleaning up. The children were exhibiting extrinsic motivation, which is when there is an external reward at stake, such as a sticker for good behavior or a positive compliment from a teacher. Praise, like what I was using, tends to motivate children extrinsically. They may want to do something to win or to be the best at something. This can create anxiety in children because they may feel that they are not living up to the expectations of their teacher which in turn can affect their self-esteem and confidence.
Over time I learned how to use encouragement rather than praise to support children’s intrinsic motivation, which stems from interest and enjoyment. When it was time to clean up, I would make sure that children knew the time was approaching so that they would be mentally prepared for an upcoming transition. I would then sing a clean up song that would prompt the children to start cleaning up. I would model cleaning up and as I saw children beginning to do the same say things like, “Thank you, Sarah. You heard the clean up song and know that it is time to clean up” or “D.J., thank you for your hard work. It is very helpful when everybody cleans up.” I was intentional about making sure what I said was said only to the child it was intended for. I also tried to make cleaning up into a game to make it more enjoyable. I would prompt children to find toys on the floor by singing, “Who can find the blue block on the floor, on the floor? Who can find the blue block on the floor? Put it away, don’t delay. Who can find the blue block on the floor?”
All in all, I found that children began to learn about cleaning up at their own pace and/or developmental level. Children were just as motivated to clean up for the sake of cleaning up or because they knew that something new was coming next. They learned how to work as team and no one was ever singled out if they didn’t participate. There was a sense of community and everyone felt that they were an important part of that community.