“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” so says a Chinese proverb. Another says, “The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” Sometimes in life, we are overwhelmed by a task or derailed by that persistent voice in our head saying, “You are not good enough.” Ignore that voice and take a small step forward, and that is enough for now.
These small steps forward are small wins, which add up to big ones, a theory called the Progress Principle discovered by Professors Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer at the Harvard Business School. It suggests that the single most important thing that can boost a person’s positive emotions, motivate them to move forward, and give them the perception of accomplishment is making progress in meaningful work. Solving small problems can lead to an extraordinarily positive inner work life. In the professional arena, this drives performance, creativity, and productivity and has the power to make it a “best day.”
The same can happen at home, especially as work and life merge together. Though tested in the workplace, the Progress Principle—the motivational power of making progress incrementally—works in all settings. Connected to intrinsic motivation, progress principle is embedded in science of how kids connect with what they are learning. When kids experience small wins, the feeling of making progress keeps them motivated; it’s personally rewarding and they like doing it.
The key is figuring out how to leverage the Progress Principle to keep the momentum going. It may seem like your kid is giving up or not trying. That’s not because they’re unwilling or lazy. Research reminds us that kids may be giving up learning something not because they are lazy, but because they are not making progress. When kids struggle to pick up a new skill, they misinterpret “this is hard” for “I must not be learning much” and give up.
You can create a supportive environment to help your kid have their “best day” by being a:
- Catalyst: take actions that directly propel your kids school work or activity forward
- Nourisher: provide encouragement that emotionally supports your kid in an effort
You have the power to be a catalyst and a nourisher to re-energize and revitalize your kids’ creative productivity. The support you give will help them feel respected, valued, and motivated.
As a Catalyst:
Remove the boulders in your kid’s path and give them the tools and resources they need.
Boulders often come when kids hit a roadblock, or something that feels like a setback and leads to frustration. There are a set of five power behaviors we can teach our kids to use to keep powering through, even when it feels difficult.
Give your kids autonomy; it empowers them to help themselves.
Let your kid decide how to meet their goals using the Self-Directed Learning Cycle so they can design their own process. The science of learning is pretty clear that almost any student can master similar levels of material, but they do so at different paces and using different processes.
As a Nourisher:
Help your kid to set clear goals.
Support them as they design their own learning process and make a plan for the day. Have a conversation about what they’re trying to accomplish and why it’s important.
Offer help when asked.
One of the five power behaviors of a self-directed learner is seeking appropriate help. When your kid says, “I’ve tried to solve this problem myself and I’m truly stuck,” it’s okay to offer help. That doesn’t mean stepping in to do the work. It’s about finding the resource that answers the question.
In the end, one of the best things we can do is celebrate small wins. It gives our kids a sense of progress and accomplishment, and the motivation to keep working towards their bigger task or goal.