After years of academic struggle, children can't be expected to bring energy and enthusiasm to the table. So teachers must provide it by communicating with confidence, enthusiasm, and energy that the child can and will make gains, and also by using reinforcers wisely. Extrinsic incentives can help children who avoid challenges to put in more effort, but only if the desired goal is within the child's reach. In one study, boys with learning disabilities who performed poorly on sit-ups and relay runs improved to average performance levels when told that they were the kinds of children who did well on such tasks or that the apple juice they drank had given them the extra energy to do well. Building extrinsic motivators like these into our teaching can be very effective, but the goal should ultimately be to help students develop the inner desire to do well.
Examples of additional external motivators include praise, charting successes, and earning rewards such as stars, a treat, time to play tapes or computer games, or more recess time. Point systems that reward children for improved attention, learning, accuracy, productivity, and behavior have particularly powerful effects on their learning rates and spontaneous use of learning strategies. For example, a teacher can award points for meeting each of four class rules: stay on task speak nicely, follow directions, complete assignments. These points accumulate toward a prize or privilege. Responses cost systems also are very effective. Students are given points or concrete rewards, but lose a few whenever they show certain behaviors, such as being off task or not completing a certain percentage of problems.
Contracting is another useful motivator because the child actually makes decisions about what he or she wants to achieve and what the consequences will be, in negotiation with the teacher. The child could contract to complete specific academic objectives, meet personal goals, or improve a certain percentage (as in 85 percent accuracy on homework). The success of contracting is attributed to the Premack principle, which states that a less favored activity (such as doing homework) will take on greater value when followed by a more highly valued activity (such as watching TV). The positive consequence becomes a strong incentive for the student to put effort into less favored activities.
External reinforcement can also come from classroom materials and assignments that are of high interest or that value a student's linguistic and cultural background. Possibilities include collecting stories from a student's elderly relatives or doing research on famous people who share the student's language or heritage.
A student's response to extrinsic motivators is a very individual thing. What works for one student won't work for another. Once a powerful motivator is round, it should be maintained for a time and then withdrawn gradually in order to prevent reversal of the behavior change. After years of failure, any short period of extrinsic reinforcement by itself won't cause a youngster to appreciate his or her capabilities and value learning for learning's sake. Turning learned helplessness around is a long process.
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