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Autonomy Supportive Parenting – Key to Your Child’s Academic Success

What is autonomy-supportive parenting | Increase intrinsic motivation for academic success | Increase extrinsic motivation for academic success | Positive effects | How to be an autonomy-supportive parent

Autonomy supportive parenting is a little-known but remarkably effective way to help children become motivated and achieve success.

Almost all parents want their children to achieve academic success, but many of them do not know how to do that or where to start. They often try to intervene directly to control their children’s behaviors by offering rewards or imposing punishments. These traditional parenting tactics are not only ineffective, but can also negatively affect outcomes, children’s daily well-being, and their mental health​1​.

girl daydreams while doing homework

What is autonomy-supportive parenting

Autonomy is a sense of being in control of one’s own actions, and the ability to determine one’s own behavior. Autonomy-supportive parents take their children’s perspective, let them take initiative, and involve them in decision-making instead of controlling them.

Research shows a consistent positive association between autonomy-supportive parenting and children’s intrinsic motivation, performance, learning, well-being,  social emotional development, and psychosocial adjustment​2​.

Increase intrinsic motivation for academic success

Studies show that intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, attitude toward learning, attention, and persistence are among the behavioral factors that affect academic success​3​.

According to the self-determination theory (SDT), humans have three basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The environment in which a child lives can either facilitate or hinder their intrinsic motivation depending on whether it contains these elements or not​4​.

A parenting style that is autonomy supportive provides children with the autonomy they need to develop intrinsic motivation and gives them a sense of control over their own actions. It signals to them that they are competent enough to make their own decisions.

In addition, parents who do not hold psychological control over their children are better able to bond with them. Improved parent-child relationships are another vital factor that contributes to intrinsic motivation​5​.

By satisfying all three of the children’s psychological needs, these factors help them approach success in a positive way.

Increase extrinsic motivation for academic success

A sense of control can not only improve intrinsic motivation, but also extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something because we enjoy it. Extrinsic motivation is the drive to perform an activity for a separable outcome or external reason.

Not every child can enjoy learning, and not every subject can inspire pleasure. Consequently, motivation to study is primarily extrinsic in many children.

Providing children with personal autonomy can also improve their extrinsic motivation​6​.

Positive effects of autonomy

The role of autonomy in child development is crucial. Autonomy support provides the following beneficial effects and improvements.

  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Executive function and academic achievement​7​
  • Perceived confidence​8​
  • Prosocial behavior​9​
  • Self-regulation​10​
  • Socio-emotional development​11​
  • Mental health​12​
  • Child well-being and life satisfaction​13​

How to be an autonomy-supportive parent

Giving up parental control over children triggers a strong fear in many parents.

Being autonomy-supportive is not being permissive. It doesn’t mean letting children do whatever they want. Parents who support their children’s autonomy also provide guidance, reason, and an environment conducive to learning​14​.

To do it well, however, you need to be able to tolerate some failure on your child’s part at first. They’ll never learn to take responsibility for their own education if you never let go.

Studies show that the following steps are essential to providing autonomy support to children for their academic success.

Let your child decide

Give them back the responsibility of learning. If you have been nagging or punishing your child about homework every single day, it’s time to stop. That means your child will likely stop doing homework or studying altogether, but it will not stay that way if you also follow the steps below.

Help them internalize the reasons to study

Helping your child internalize the reasons why they should learn and study is the most essential aspect of autonomy support​15​

Not all types of reasons will work. In order to internalize learning, the reasons need to be meaningful rationale. For example, knowing more and growing as a person are meaningful reasons for the child, but getting better grades or going to a more prestigious college is not. These latter reasons are likely to be more important to the parent than the child.

Acknowledge feelings and show empathy

Acknowledge and accept your child’s negative feelings if they don’t like to study. Respecting your child’s feelings is an important part of helping them internalize them. You can say, “I know that studying can be hard and not fun sometimes.”​16​

Use a tone that conveys autonomy

How you present the rationale for studying and how you acknowledge their feelings matter. If the tone of the message is controlling, for example, using “shoulds”, “musts”, or “have tos”, the child will not feel autonomous.

Instead, convey autonomy support and let them choose​17​.

Help them find optimal challenges

Help your child find exercises or activities that give them a sense of challenge or curiosity. The tasks should be challenging enough to challenge your child to improve or learn new skills, but not too difficult that they are unable to complete them.

Give positive, constructive feedback

Give your child positive, constructive feedback and suggestions that focus on learning issues, their effort, or their process, not on their ability or the person.

Again, the tone of feedback is very important. Your points for improvement should be presented as suggestions instead of commands.

Strengthen relationship

Create an emotionally supportive environment for your child. When a parent is warm, positive, and responsive, children feel comfortable expressing their feelings, doubts, and questions. Close family relationships contribute to your child’s intrinsic motivation.

References

  1. 1.
    Swanson J, Valiente C, Lemery-Chalfant K, Caitlin O’Brien T. Predicting Early Adolescents’ Academic Achievement, Social Competence, and Physical Health From Parenting, Ego Resilience, and Engagement Coping. The Journal of Early Adolescence. Published online May 14, 2010:548-576. doi:10.1177/0272431610366249
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    Casillas A, Robbins S, Allen J, Kuo YL, Hanson MA, Schmeiser C. Predicting early academic failure in high school from prior academic achievement, psychosocial characteristics, and behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online May 2012:407-420. doi:10.1037/a0027180
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    Gagné M. Motivation and Emotion. Published online 2003:199-223. doi:10.1023/a:1025007614869
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    Wong MM. Perceptions of parental involvement and autonomy support: Their relations with self-regulation, academic performance, substance use and resilience among adolescents. North American Journal of Psychology. 2008;10(3):497–518.
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    Matte-Gagné C, Harvey B, Stack DM, Serbin LA. Contextual Specificity in the Relationship between Maternal Autonomy Support and Children’s Socio-emotional Development: A Longitudinal Study from Preschool to Preadolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online January 6, 2015:1528-1541. doi:10.1007/s10964-014-0247-z
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    Diseth Å, Samdal O. Autonomy support and achievement goals as predictors of perceived school performance and life satisfaction in the transition between lower and upper secondary school. Soc Psychol Educ. Published online February 12, 2014:269-291. doi:10.1007/s11218-013-9244-4
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    Soenens B, Vansteenkiste M, Van Petegem S. Let Us Not Throw Out the Baby With the Bathwater: Applying the Principle of Universalism Without Uniformity to Autonomy-Supportive and Controlling Parenting. Child Dev Perspect. Published online December 23, 2014:44-49. doi:10.1111/cdep.12103
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