By Pat Blackwell, October 2018

Intelligence is related to school performance but does not itself determine academic success. Why?

Because other factors such as motivation are foundations of learning and performance at school. Mastery motivation is a term used by developmentalists to explain why some children, regardless of IQ, do well in school and others do not. This term is defined as a willingness to work hard, take on challenges and persevere (or hang in there when things get rough).

How does mastery motivation develop? Some aspects of mastery may be prewired or inborn. The earliest mastery behaviors include mouthing, touching and looking.  These simple behaviors are the start of complex learning about the world. Innate interest and curiosity propel motivation to learn. As toddlers, the exploration becomes even more charged with the ability to move around.

While the inclination to explore and learn is innate, parents can encourage or inhibit a child’s natural mastery drive. Parents who give their children a green light to explore raise bright babies on the track to learning.

Sometimes parents of infants and toddlers find it exasperating to cope with their child’s inexhaustible drive to get into things. But it may be reassuring to regard this drive as “learning fuel.” Parents should be concerned if their child does not have a zest for exploration and discovery because it is the curious child who will go the furthest in school.

Nurturing mastery

What can parents do to set up a home that nurtures mastery? Well, expensive toys are not really important.  Babies and toddlers crave variety in play experiences and materials. Safe everyday objects like pots and pans, clean, safe jar lids and plastic containers filled with rice for shaking are all good, inexpensive items

The old adage that children enjoy the box more than the toy is true. Expose baby to brown bags, cardboard boxes, fabrics, and textures. Do not overwhelm baby with too many toys. Provide one or two at a time and follow her lead in exploration.

In addition, to play activities, home safety is essential for facilitating exploration. If parents say “No”, “Stop” or  “Don’t” more than three or four times during baby’s playtime, the home is probably not conducive to child-driven exploration. Making at least a couple of rooms child proof says that you really care about your child’s learning and exploration.

Tips for mastery & achievement 

In addition to setting up a home environment that is safe, interesting and encourages exploration, parents facilitate mastery in the following ways:

  • First and foremost, understand that the relationship between baby and parent is the first step to intellectual, emotional and social development. Spend uninterrupted play time with your child every day- even if it is only 15-20 minutes. Be completely “available” with no screen distraction.
  • Adopting an authoritative discipline style that emphasizes self-control and limits (neither too harsh nor too lenient). Get in the habit of stating “the why behind the rule.” Self-control is another form of mastery.
  • Helping older babies and toddlers fall asleep on their own and stay asleep is another type of early mastery or self-control. The next step for older kids is teaching self-control strategies to use when angry or upset like counting and deep breathing.
  • Interact with the child to promote self-control and self-esteem. For example, praising effort over accomplishment, permitting autonomy, and showing warmth and understanding are advised.
  • Choose daycares, preschools and elementary schools that promote discovery, problem-solving and self-control.

Mastery and motivation are at least partly innate drives. However, what parents do to build this force can make all the difference in the child’s success.


Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933
. Check out Pat's latest article 'Nature vs. Nurture, and Your Role as a Parent'.

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