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back to school mindset Jul 15, 2020


“How do I motivate my student?!”  This is a question that I get asked frequently as a special educator. 

There is a lot of pressure on teachers to “get” a child to do whatever the task at hand may be, no matter how unmotivated the student is. Many varieties of behavior plans and incentive plans have been used, with varying degrees of success, mostly, short term success.

And it always comes back to…how do I motivate my student?



What is motivation?


Motivation is what makes us do the things we do. We often think of two types of motivation, intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is that which comes from within us. For example, someone may play soccer because they think it’s fun.

Extrinsic motivation is when something external gets us to do something. For example, someone may play soccer because their parents tell them they have to or they can not play video games. 



Is Intrinsic Motivation Better Than Extrinsic Motivation?


Some people think so, and this is probably a matter of opinion and something that could be debated for hours! But in the end, I think it’s more a matter of balance than, either/or.

After all, we all do things purely because of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation can be a useful tool. For example, my son is not motivated to clean his room. He thinks it’s perfectly fine to have his dirty clothes all over the floor. It doesn’t bother him a bit. Now I could get all worked up over this and try to get him to care about how his room looks {and smells}, but the truth is one can not impose their motivations on another. Or rather, one can not impose intrinsic motivation on another. 


One can however, impose extrinsic motivation on others. I can give him a reward or insentive for cleaning his room, maybe a couple of dollars or extra electronics time… Or, I can give him an incentive to avoid something negative, such as, “clean your room or no electronics today!”


Should You Use Extrinsic Motivation?


Maybe. There is nothing wrong with some external motivators here and there. However, experts recommend not over doing it, that is, do not offer a reward for every little thing, especially if the student shows some interest in the task. Excessive rewards could make them lose interest over time and rely more heavily on the rewards. 

Extrinsic motivation is a good option when you need to teach the student a skill, and particularly when it is a skill that your pretty darn sure they are just not ever going to have any intrinsic motivation for, no matter what you do.

Experts also recommend periodically surprising students with an external reward so that it is an extra bonus, rather than an expectation. 

Also, as students learn a skill and get reinforced, they may start to feel success, their confidence may begin to build, and potentially their motivation to continue succeeding could lead to a bit of intrinsic motivation. If this begins to happen, fade off of the rewards, slowly. 


Can You Increase Your Student’s Intrinsic Motivation?



You can’t change someone else’s intrinsic motivation but you can do things to access it. For example, I can’t actually force my son to suddenly want a clean fresh bedroom. His likes and dislikes are his own, a part of his personality. However, I may be able to make cleaning his room more pleasureable and therefore access his intrinsic motivation. 

How? Perhaps by reminding him how much easier it will be to get ready in the morning if his clothes are off the floor, or by complimenting him on how mature he is when he does pick up his room. I could do it with him and make it into a kind of game. I could play some loud music and use humor as we are cleaning.

Yes, accessing someone’s intrinsic motivation is harder than motivating them externally. And that’s why we tend to use so many external motivators.

Even though it can require a lot more effort, accessing students intrinsic motivation is important to do in the classroom or therapy room or we may find ourselves “giving away the farm” just to get our hard to motivate kiddos to do anything!


Here are 8 ways that may help you to do this:


1. Set Clear, Small, Manageable Goals: Remember, if someone is not motivated to do something {math worksheet, make a new friend, brush their teeth, etc.} than they will need help so that they do not get overwhelmed or discouraged. To be motivated, intrinsically or extrinsically, one must be able to meet with success.

2. Step By Step: Have a step by step plan so that the student knows what to expect along the way. Having a plan may decrease anxiety. Any action that causes anxiety is not going to be an activity that the student is motivated to do.

3. Give Praise: Be sure to give plenty of compliments along the way. Keeping up morale and self-esteem will help motivate your student. No one wants to do something that is difficult, only to have it go unnoticed. Be specific with your praise, talking about the improvements made. 

4. Incorporate Student Interests Into The Task: This seems obvious I know, but I mean be willing to go outside the box to do this. Don’t get stuck on the idea that it has to be done your way. Remember the end goal. How you get there may not matter. Sometimes it’s hard to give up control but for our hard to motivate kiddos especially, control can really hurt us in the end.

5. Break It Up: Again, make the task small and manageable so that the student meets with success. Most people are not motivated to do something that they believe they are going to fail at. Once the student is able to do one or two steps successfully, let them take a break.

6. Move It: Movement is a great stress reliever and helps activate the brain. Consider having your student do the undesirable task while standing or moving if possible or incorporate movement into the breaks.

7. Build The Relationship: Most people will be more motivated to do something that they don’t really want to, for someone that they like. Build a strong relationship with your student, to the best of your ability, and they will be more likely to trust you, persevere and take risks with your support. 

8. Mindset And Positive Self Talk: It’s important to teach students how to have a growth mindset so that they are better able to persevere through tasks that are challenging. Some students can actually get to a point where they like the challenge…with a lot of support and encouragement.

The set of motivational posters below, can help you talk about mindset and positive self talk with your students. You can hang these posters around your room or on a bulletin board, and you can also use them as an activity.

Have your student(s) read each one and discuss what it means to them. Can they give examples from their lives?



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These resources include my monthly Tips & Tricks newsletter {for a particular social skill each month}, as well as a variety of posters, visuals, games and activities designed to support the identified social skill.


Thanks So Much and Happy Teaching!

Cindy ~Socially Skilled Kids


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