There is a difference
You see the kids on task and behaving, and it’s natural to want to reinforce what they’re doing. By the same token, the kids who are dragging their feet or not doing their work (or chores) may need a bit of a fire lit under them.
There are positive and effective ways of dealing with both situations, however many of us living or working with children have a tendency to slip into habits that not only don’t work well, but can create a whole new set of problems. Likewise, motivating people requires different approaches and interactions than reinforcing them, and it’s easy to get the two confused.
Motivating kids is not a bad thing
We’ve heard so much confusing information about motivating being harmful, but the truth is, there is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. Every behavior we choose has some desired payoff behind it. If you are reading this article, it means that you’re not doing something else! It means that, for this moment, getting some clarity on this topic is more need-fulfilling than doing paperwork or chores or, say, browsing social media or playing another hand of solitaire.
The problem is not that we motivate, but how. Motivation is about connecting a desired (or desirable) behavior to a positive outcome that has meaning for the people we’re attempting to motivate. When the positive outcome offers children a sense of purpose, engagement, fun, autonomy, a sense of accomplishment, or a chance to get to something they really want to do when they’re done, they are far more inclined to perform that task—even if it’s something they might not ordinarily choose or like to do. Getting to experience the positive outcome, so long as it has meaning and relevance to them, serves as reinforcement, which increases the likelihood that they will repeat the behavior in the future.
Good motivation, bad motivation
Here’s where things get tricky. Good motivation appeals to kids’ needs for success, mastery, meaning, enjoyment, autonomy or control in their lives. But many of us have grown up with models or advice that rely far more heavily on more basic, primitive need for safety or avoidance of unpleasant outcomes: “Do your work or you can’t go to recess.” “Get in by 9:00 or you’re grounded for a month.”
Even urging people to use praise ends up having a not-so-silver lining. “You’re such a good girl! You cleaned your room,” suggests that the “goodness” or worth of the child depends on her ability to keep her room clean. Task-oriented instructions and feedback have no such hidden dangers. Telling a child what a clean room requires (clothes off the floor, bed made, toys put away) and then recognizing those specific tasks when they are accomplished removes the conditional worth implied when we bring the child’s worth or our happiness and approval into the equation. (“I love you when you clean your room” suggests that our love depends on how the room looks.)
Asking kids to “do it for me” or telling them that it makes us sad when they don’t do what we want is, to me, far more manipulative. In addition to the fact this approach exploits a child’s fear of abandonment or need to please—which in the long run can make kids vulnerable to peer pressure and poor decision making—it also depends on their investment in your happiness and well-being, which may or may not be strong enough (especially with older kids) to “work.”
The same goes with attempting to motivate children by praising other children. Announcing “I like the way Billy is sitting” in an attempt to get the rest of the class to “sit like Billy” will probably only work if the kids care more about you liking them as much as you like Billy to stop doing whatever they’re currently enjoying. In general, it’s rarely a good idea to compare kids to other children to try to motivate them. “Your brother loved playing football” has little relevance to a child whose needs, skills, and ambitions may be entirely different, and it suggests that your conditional approval depends on being like the brother.
Keep it clean, keep it simple
Motivation is about getting people to do something. Reinforcement is about strengthening desirable behaviors once they appear. The techniques to motivate and the techniques to reinforce are not interchangeable.
If you want to motivate kids (or adults) to do something they don’t want to do, tie the task in with something even more desirable. “You can borrow another library book when you return the one you have.” “You can play a game when your homework is finished.” (I hesitate to use “Grandma’s Rule” about getting to eat your dessert after you finish your vegetables for a number of reasons, but that’s the basic principle.)
Giving children choices about what you want them to do appeals to their need for control and autonomy, and sometimes simply getting to pick which chore to do first or which ten problems on page 56 they want to do will be all we need to pique their engagement and cooperation.
When the desired behavior appears, reinforcement sounds a little different. The most effective approach involves describing the behavior and then telling the kids how it pays off for them. “Hey, you brought your library book back. Now you can take another one home.” “You got your laundry in the hamper in time for me to wash your clothes.”
Let’s get clear what we’re trying to do—motivate or reinforce. And let’s also keep our feelings out of it so kids will know we care and value them regardless of their behavior.
Dr. Jane Bluestein has worked with thousands of educators and parents on the topic of positive adult-child relationships, particularly with regard to children at risk.
She has appeared internationally as a speaker and talk-show guest, including appearances as a guest expert on CNN, National Public Radio, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Jane has been a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor, teacher training program coordinator, and volunteer with high-risk teens. She heads Instructional Support Services, Inc. a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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