Motivation and our children

Motivation and our children

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I closed the book, and my mind started spinning. At least, it was spinning in a good way this time. Daniel Pink’s “Drive” had confirmed many ideas I had about being a parent and an educator. While the “old school” ideas of motivation through incentives are still present in education (and let’s face it, adult life too), it’s clear that intrinsic motivation is the holy grail that adults should be searching for to unlock potential in children.

Some of these ideas are straight from “Drive,” while others are adapted to my work and experience with children.

Stay relevant: “Drive” talks about helping kids to see the big picture, and it’s clear that the high stakes testing environment leads us away from the purpose of education. Children must learn that there will be performance expectations, however, the concept of a one-shot, summative performance just doesn’t exist in the adult world. While we are evaluated or given feedback for performance, it’s not a “one and done” kind of situation (at least more often than not).

So….. why do we put pressure on children to perform on a one-shot test?

Why do prep for a month going into the test?

It goes without saying that this distorts children’s view of educational reality and is a true waste of educational time.

When working in my room, the relevance of speech/language therapy is often lost on kids. Bringing awareness to a speech articulation error or challenges in fluency is a nuanced approach. You can’t just say to a child “Your speech is unclear. You must work in these (sometimes) fun activities to fix it. Or else, you might have trouble reading later on, getting along with peers, and possibly being a successful adult. Let’s get to work.”

Tying our work to relevance can shorten time in therapy and give the students the intrinsic motivation to work through their challenges.

We are working on our speech so that our message is clear. When we are clear, people know what we are saying.

We are working on smooth speech so that other people can follow our ideas.

We are working on improving our vocabulary so that we may speak and write with more sophistication. When our speech and writing is more sophisticated, people really like to listen to what we say and write.

Some of these ideas may sound trite, but it’s better than not tying our work to specific areas that can improve a child’s life.

Feedback is at the core of change: Let’s get real here. We all expect feedback; some of us only like positive feedback, some of us recoil at negative feedback, and some of us use feedback as a tool for continued growth.

“Drive” talks about the growth mindset research, and it’s clear that this mindset is one which works to use feedback as a positive force. We are not stagnant, we can grow, and feedback is the tool to get there.

Feedback and praise are 2 different things, so while we want children to feel good, we also need to not set up unrealistic worlds around them. We don’t want to only praise students and find out their world came crashing down in High School or College when someone told them they weren’t great.

Feedback should be specific; “Drive” talks about making praise specific, but I would go further and say feedback needs to be specific as well.

I like how you started this writing piece with a question; it drew my attention in. Let’s look at the second paragraph, it looks as though we jumped around to different ideas. How can we tie them in together so that you pull me farther into the piece?

I like how you used an easy onset when you introduced yourself to someone. That gave you some positive momentum into the next thing you said. If they asked you a question that caught you off-guard, how do you think you would handle it? Let’s practice.

AMP it up: “Drive” talks about Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose as the core of improving intrinsic motivation. As educators, how can we incorporate these ideas into our teaching?

The Common Core (while often criticized) has components that allow for autonomy. Students don’t necessarily have to write a 5 page essay, they can use a multimedia presentation to get the same ideas across. This same approach should be used when talking about projects in the class. Giving children choices can underpin some fantastic learning. Sometimes, educators need to let go of the control to let their students grow.

Choices and autonomy can have impacts beyond a regular education environment. In my work with students with autism, I have found that the use of choices has been largely successful in reducing negative behaviors. In the end, if the goals of the learning objective have been met, does it matter that the student got to make choices about how it was done?

Mastery gives students the ability to take a learning objective to it’s fulfilled end. Let students work out a problem of their choosing until they have mastered it. This kind of work allows for a growth mindset to develop. The end of a project is not a grade on a test per se, it is a completed project that shows deep work and learning. Project based learning environments work towards this end. While it might be a significant departure for some educators, it is work trying at points in the school year to increase motivation and learning for students.

Purpose feeds back into relevance for me. When our students know “why” we are doing something, it makes it easier to keep them motivated. There is a clear goal and a payoff; not in the sense that there is a reward at the end, but that the “why” of an activity has been fulfilled.


Educators want their students to feel the love of learning. While rewards and praise are helpful at times, intrinsic motivation is the ultimate goal. By working on activities for their own sake, students can grow as learners and individuals. The key is balancing extrinsic and intrinsic factors. While the current educational environments can steer us away from intrinsic factors, there are still ways to foster this type of motivation.

Make your work relevant; helps students understand “why” they are doing something.

Give feedback, not just praise. The balance of some positive and some negative is a solid way to help students understand that learning and growth is a process, not just a one-shot event.

AMP up learning. Strive to increase autonomy, mastery, and purpose. “Drive” outlines ideas like “Fed Ex Days” which can be one day events that foster the AMP ideas. Allows students choices. Help them work on their projects until mastery is evident. Give them understanding of the purpose of an activity.

Motivating our children is not easy work, but with some tweaks and changes in mindsets, we can work towards creating lifelong learners who can contribute to our world in a meaningful way.


“Drive” by Daniel H. Pink can be found here. It’s well worth the read.

Distilled ideas can be found in Pink’s TED talk.

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