Thinking Beyond Motivation

By Dr. Will Henson



Whether it’s online learning or in person, a lot of my consultation work centers on trying to get students to productively engage in school. And I always hear the same mantra from frustrated educators – “We just haven’t found the right motivator!”

Motivation is the wrong concept. The idea that a student simply needs a bigger reward or a bigger punishment goes against some very important logic. First, motivation is not something one sustains all the time, especially under pressure. Second, behavioral problems are the result of deficits in critical social & emotional skills, not a lack of desire to do better. Third, behavior change is accomplished through practice and repetition over time, not the sudden appearance of a punishment or reward.

I am not saying you can’t have rewards or consequences in school. I am saying that those interventions are not in and of themselves what creates lasting changes with students.

CHALLENGE:  For the next week. I’d like you to try a new way to look at challenging behavior differently – You can use these questions to get you started:

(a) How does the challenging behavior help the student from their perspective (i.e. does it help them avoid something frustrating?)?

(b) How does the environment around the student contribute to the behavior? What could you change?

(c) What skills does the student need that would help them do something different?


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