The seeds of intrinsic motivation begin in infancy, from the time a child looks for a parent’s gaze. As motivational systems in the child mature from the free-form connections and play found in toddlerhood to having desires to achieve highly in school, the frontal lobes of the brain are growing at rapid rates to support a child’s capacity to accept more and more demands.
If all progresses well, teenagers transition to setting their own goals in certain aspects of life, such as school, sports, or vocations. Teens also can take responsibility for developing the paths to meet set goals. This level of autonomy reflects solid intrinsic motivation in a child, and prepares the teen for less-structured experiences, such as those found in college.
In its most basic form, working memory (WM) is a cognitive process that allows individuals to solve problems by holding and manipulating pieces of information in their minds. An example is the ability to conduct complex mathematical calculations without paper and pencil. Working memory, however, is also crucial in the development of higher-order cognitive processes, such as organizing and carrying out daily demands. Individuals with true ADD often have problems in WM.
Children with dormant, undetected WM problems are often seen as bright and energetic students during elementary school years. However, when organizational demands increase by middle school or high school, the student with WM difficulties can experience significant problems in keeping up with assignments and homework. The new difficulties the teen is having do not match past expectations or successes, which can lead to confusion in the child and erroneous labels (i.e., “laziness”) by parents or professionals.
Linking the Two Concepts
A teen with “silent” WM problems has difficulty autonomously making expected gains in school. By all past indicators, the student should enjoy continued success, but instead is buried in incomplete or late work.
As a teen experiences continued “failures” academically, motivation to succeed in school can begin to decline as if infected by a bad case of “learned helplessness.” The teen can begin to shift focus away from school and toward friendships, which allows him or her to avoid underlying vulnerabilities.
Resulting Organizational Challenges
At least one or two children per typical classroom have problems in WM that are linked to their organizational challenges. If a child is struggling to adjust to increased organizational demands – such as transitioning to middle- or high-school settings – for more than two consecutive quarters, underlying WM problems might be present. If such processing difficulties are identified early enough, a child can transition into teenage years with appropriate supports and expectations, maintaining motivations to succeed.
Neuropsychological testing is key to detecting WM problems and understanding the struggles that some students endure. MindMatters professionals are devoted to identifying and addressing such underlying problems, helping to guide a child’s talents toward success.