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.

Type and Frequency of Incentives

Rewards work, but it's important to use the right type and frequency of these incentives for maximum benefit. With hyperactive children, for example, rewards at times can be very distracting. Also, in some circumstances, incentives actually reduce motivation.

Praise as an incentive is very useful, but it should be used sparingly, especially at the secondary school level where no more than 5 to 10 percent of a student's efforts should be praised. When it is used, praise should be well-timed and targeted to a specific behavior. Saying, "You did a good job today" as the student, leaves class is less effective than looking at a test when handed in and saying, "Ten out of 15 spelling words correct! You're really paying attention to the order of letters today! "

To prevent rewards and praise from being counterproductive, experts suggest the following:

  1. Don't use rewards or much praise when students are excited about a new task. They are already motivated and this sincere interest in their work is enough.
  2. Use the least obvious and attention-getting reward that is effective. Using bigger rewards may cause students to work for the incentive only, stopping when the reward is withdrawn—as so often happens when parents promise "I'll buy you a car if you get all A's." The A's surely happen that term, but never again. Applying this principle, encouragement of on-task behavior in the classroom by breaking the assignment into parts, followed by your smile when each part is submitted, may be incentive enough.
  3. Focus on what the child accomplished rather than on what he or she gets as a reward. This fosters self-perceptions of competence, independence, and task enjoyment. If rewards are related to the content of the tasks—a handmade journal of bound sheets of paper for completing writing assignments for instance—then students are more likely to see the reward as inherent in doing the task.

Grading Systems

Competition for grades is the classic form of external reinforcement used in school. The theory is that competing for good grades will enhance performance. But the truth is that this kind of competition is only fun for the best students. Because students who are learning disabled don't believe they can win at this game, they aren't motivated to compete. Richard Lavoie explains the problem this way:

Many well-intentioned teachers emphasize competition in their classroom in the mistaken belief that they are preparing the child for the intense competition that he will face in society. In their zeal to replicate the "big, bad world" these teachers have created classroom environments wherein the level and intensity of competition far exceeds that of the adult world. Our society does require competition in order to achieve success but this competition has two fundamental components: (a) adults do not compete unless they elect to and (b) we compete only against our peers and equals. Most classroom competitive activities (for example, spelling bees, mathematics games) do not meet those criteria. (1986, p. 63)

In addition to feeling ill-equipped in the first place to compete academically, tests only induce even more anxiety for students with LD and actually reduce performance. For this and other reasons, it's important that we find ways besides tests to assess student learning. Cooperative learning, in which students work together to accomplish a goal, alleviates some of the evaluation stress experienced by students with LD and promotes motivation and performance. Portfolio assessment is another useful alternative. Portfolio items can consist of written products, projects, oral reports, demonstrations, and performances. The student's and teacher's written statements regarding the strategies, progress, and proficiency represented by the portfolio contents stress progress toward concrete, thoughtful, creative, and meaningful goals. Depending on the purpose, several types of portfolios can be compiled: showcase portfolios, which collect the student's best work for the purpose of gaining admission to a job or program; reflective portfolios, in which the purpose of the contents is to reflect a child's effort and use of various strategies; cumulative portfolios, which collect a series of items illustrating change in learning over time; goal-based portfolios, which showcase the final products that meet preestablished goals; and process portfolios, which document the steps a child used to complete a piece, such as the steps in a research project.

Narrative evaluations have become increasingly popular, as have progress notes on effort and achievement since the last marking period. There are also many options for grading adaptations beyond grading the child's mastery in comparison to that of classmates: marking "achieved" or "progressing" on a checklist of specific curriculum objectives; pass-fail options such as honor pass, high pass pass, low pass, or fail; giving level-specific grades such as 3B (performing B work at the third-grade level); and grading based on adjusted length or components of assignments (the transcript can reflect a different course title to differentiate a much lower level of responsibility than the standard course). A grading rubric can be used, in which a checklist is created that represents a project's components. The grade is based on points earned on each item. All students in the class are graded using the same rubric, but the components can be modified based on an individual student's needs.

Another interesting grading option, suggested by Larry Lieberman, calls for the student, teacher, and parents to decide which of three levels of tests is most appropriate given the course content and competition from peers:

Level one: Regular test Level two: Somewhat less abstract, requiring fill-ins and short answers Level three: Most concrete—true-false, multiple choice (requires recognition versus recall)

The highest grade for a level-three test would be a C+; for level two, a B+; and for level one, an A. If students do well on one level, they can choose to try the next, with the best grade being the final grade. Lieberman comments:

Think about it—if a kid has the option to either make a C+ on a level-three test or to fail a level-one test, what choice do you think he will make? (1986, p. 423)

Contracting can also be used to award grades based on specific agreed-upon goals: for example, a written term paper earns an A, an annotated outline earns a B, an organized folder of research materials on the topic earns a C. Another option is to give students opportunities to raise their grades by doing more homework, correcting errors, or completing extra projects. Teachers can also hold grading conferences with individual students at the end of each quarter. Students present their own estimate of their grades on a self-assessment sheet. This gives them a feeling of ownership and a greater understanding of what they need to do to earn a better grade next time.