Fostering motivation—a child’s desire and drive to succeed—is a universal challenge for teachers and parents. A “well-motivated child” is a pleasure to teach. His hand shoots into the air during class discussions. He can’t wait for that science lab, writing workshop, or even formal test. In fact, he’ll cheerfully take on one challenge after another, handle setbacks, and keep moving forward, even if results aren’t perfect.
Unfortunately, research indicates that he can also be pretty rare. In a recent survey by the National Education Association, for example, teachers said that in general, approximately 60% of their students were “disengaged” or “unmotivated.” In practical terms, that’s a lot of demoralized kids, with plenty of frustrated teachers and parents looking on. So is there any way out of the impasse? Absolutely, says renowned author and lecturer, Richard Lavoie, Ed.D. In over 30 years as a teacher and headmaster of residential schools for children with learning disabilities, Lavoie watched thousands of students struggle to stay engaged. His latest book, The Motivation Breakthrough, builds on those experiences to offer practical, research-based tools. He says that all children are motivated in some way, but adults need to help motivate them. “Kids just don’t come loaded with [motivation] batteries. You’ve got to be ready to put them in.”
So let’s say you want to help your child join the ranks of those eager beavers who just can’t get enough time in class. Lavoie started his research where most of us would: by reviewing professional scholarship. He found, however, that he came out largely empty handed. “Our schools have come to the point,” he says, “where we understand and embrace many learning styles. A teacher may use nine different math strategies, ten different reading strategies…but we typically rely on just one strategy of motivation: reward and punishment. They just don’t do the job.”
Just what is the answer? To his amazement, Lavoie stumbled across an unlikely source of “practical, pragmatic, and detailed” research: from Madison Avenue advertising! “If anybody knows how to motivate kids,” says Lavoie, “it’s the people selling toys and music.” They understand, explains Lavoie, that “one size does not fit all.” Kids—and we adults—respond to different kinds of motivating drives.
To help load kids’ “batteries,” then, Lavoie argues that we must be willing to understand what drives them—as well as what drives us. If we’re different, we must be ready to bridge those gaps.
So, parents, do you know what motivates you and your child the most? Check out Lavoie’s list and see what matches (note: more than one may apply!):
These folks adore social interaction and love to be in a lively crowd. Gregarious folks love to be connected to others, and hate to feel cast out in any way. When they’re comfortable, they’re friendly and may be great at both joining and leading.
In this case, the chance to work independently is a dream come true. A trip to a library study carrel is a treat, as is the chance to solve a problem alone in an office.
It’s important to know where you stand, and to feel that you have maintained a strong, positive reputation. Criticism can feel crushing.
The need to know is a deep and powerful drive. When you’re curious about something, it’s a gift to be allowed to explore it without being restrained.
This sounds negative, but don’t be fooled. People with strong positive aggression are good competitors, as well as passionate fighters for justice. They want their views to be heard and respected.
Again, beware bad connotations. As a motivating force, “power” is a drive for influence, responsibility, and authority. It’s an especially natural and important part of adolescence…when it’s managed right.
Many people adore being seen and appreciated for their gifts and accomplishments, and will respond to public encouragement.
These folks adore feeling connected to institutions and groups bigger than themselves. Lavoie himself, for example, owns a world-class collection of sport team tees and hats, and loves wearing them at any opportunity. He is deeply motivated by affiliation.
If you’re like most people, you’ll notice that while most drives apply in some way, one or two will really stand out. Kids, says, Lavoie, are just the same. So when you’re figuring out how to help a child feel motivated, try working with these drives. Lavoie, the affiliation-lover, offers the example of a year when he made class logo tee shirts for each of his students. “Some students,” he remembers, “wore the shirts until the garment nearly dissolved off their bodies”—fellow affiliation-lovers. “Others never wore them again”—lovers of power, inquisitiveness, or other drives, perhaps. Rather than give up the tees entirely, Lavoie says he could have just handled them differently: he could have allowed the students themselves, for example, to select colors and logo (power, status); given extra shirts as rewards for progress (recognition); or set aside one day a week for wearing them together (gregariousness).
What’s most important, he explains, is to remember that we adults can make all the difference in motivating kids. Special needs students need extra sensitivity, but the strategies that work for them, says Lavoie, “work for everybody.” To his surprise, workshop participants around the country have told Lavoie that his work has had dramatic effects on their teaching and parenting. “Somebody actually described it as 'Radical.’ Well, I think it does work, and it really is a departure from the same old-same old. And in the end, I think it’s about really good human relations. That’s always a good thing.”