If you have a child or work with children, at some point you have asked yourself, “How do I get this child to do what I need her to do?” Putting together the puzzle of what motivates another person can be tricky work.
There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation occurs when doing a task feels rewarding because it is fun, it is interesting, it is a novel experience, and/or it provides a sense of achievement. Extrinsic motivation can come from things like praise from others, rewards, public recognition, or avoiding negative consequence.
Many things in life are both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding. A professional promotion can be intrinsically motivating because it fulfills a need for appropriate challenge. It also provides extrinsic rewards, like higher pay, greater professional status, and praise from others.
An intrinsically motivated student is a driven lifelong learner. That is the ideal we want for all school-aged children. However, if a child feels that he cannot succeed at something or that a task is not meaningful, he will not be intrinsically motivated to complete the task. Curriculum writers and teachers anticipate this and try to find ways to help students develop intrinsic motivation. For example, offering student choice whenever practical, making connections between learning and life outside of school, offering an appropriate level of challenge, and including games in instruction can all increase student engagement. Yet, students do still struggle to start or complete some tasks. One example I see a lot in my tutoring practice is learning multiplication facts. For students with weaker memories, memorization feels arduous, even if the students are offered choice of games to use during fact practice. They may not yet have been exposed to multi-digit multiplication, long division, fraction operations, or factoring, tasks that are much easier once basic multiplication facts have been memorized, so fact memorization may not feel necessary or meaningful. Thus, there is little or no intrinsic motivation to do the task. I have also had students who regularly forget to complete homework, and who do not have a system for keeping track of their assignments. While their parents and I might want them to adopt a calendar or plan book, the children do not find recording and planning assignments to be intrinsically motivating.
When intrinsic motivation is lacking, extrinsic motivation can help children to complete academic tasks. Examples of extrinsic motivation are:
Screen time after completing a task
Celebrations or rewards for “good” report cards
Promotion to a more challenging course
Earning of privileges
Parental, teacher, or peer disapproval
Having to re-do an assignment that does not meet expectations
Loss of privileges
Extrinsic motivation only works under certain conditions. If a person lacks the skills and support needed to complete a task, no amount of reward will be motivating: You could offer me millions of dollars to run an ultramarathon next week, but I still will not be able to complete the race. The reward (or consequence) also needs to be meaningful: I find running difficult, so offering me a ten-cent reward for each mile I run this week is not going to overcome my dislike of the task. As well, the reward must be connected to the task. As anyone who has trained a dog can tell you, a reward or consequence that comes too long after a behavior does not serve to reinforce the desired behavior. Last, a person has to trust that she is going to receive the promised, valuable reward. We adults encounter the trust problem when we use customer loyalty programs that make reward redemption so difficult that it is not practical, or we do not perceive the reward to have the anticipated value.
There is also a lot of criticism of extrinsic reward, especially from some progressive parenting and education groups. Some of the criticism is fair. As an example, I do agree that restructuring education to be more student-centered and inherently rewarding is a better option than finding ways to implement more in-school rewards and consequences. Extrinsic reward also has limitations, and when we rely on it too heavily it can diminish intrinsic motivation. However, there is a truism that guides my thinking about extrinsic motivation: We cannot control others, only our own behavior. The kid who says “You can’t make me!” is not entirely wrong. We can only provide incentives and disincentives—extrinsic motivation—for others’ behavior. To “make” someone do what they do not want to do would require unethical, cruel means, and even those can fail.
I acknowledge also that we must be careful about the motivators that we offer. As an example, using food treats or screen time as extrinsic motivation can be counter to developing a healthy lifelong relationship with such rewards. That said, we can be creative in finding meaningful motivators that match a child’s interests. Some to consider are below.
Praise and recognition
Verbal praise of effort (not result) as a task is being completed
A congratulatory phone call from a member of the extended family or friend of the family
An opportunity to “show off” a new skill for the rest of the family
Completed work on the refrigerator or other display place in the home
A prominently displayed trophy
Extra time to…
Stay up late reading
Spend at the playground
Work on a preferred project (Lego construction, crafts)
A privilege like…
Forgoing a weekly chore
First choice of activity during playtime
Sitting in a special seat at the dinner table or in the living room
Getting to work at a parent’s desk
Main course for dinner
The family’s weekly special dessert
Game to be played on game night
Family movie to watch over the weekend
A weekend activity
Ability to earn…
A fidget toy
A décor item for the bedroom or playroom
Fun or interesting desk supplies
A reading accessory, like an interesting bookmark or book light
New or upgraded sports equipment
Collectible cards or figurines
A special outing
In my work tutoring students, I have had a lot of success using extrinsic motivation to help students adopt new habits. If you are encountering a case of the “I don’t wannas” in your household, it might be worthwhile to try using extrinsic motivators to encourage the behaviors you do want to see.