When Kids Need More Motivation Than What’s Inside

As a mom and as a teacher, I have encountered a lot. One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with is kids that don’t have enough intrinsic motivation. This could be motivation to achieve a task, to behave, to potty-train…anything really! It’s hard because when they don’t have that motivation, they really just don’t care. I’ve encountered it both at home and at school. It’s rough. What can you do to help?

First, it is important to make sure you really know that child. If it is your own child, that’s pretty easy. It’s harder if you’re in the classroom with a bunch of kids, but definitely worth your while. Once you get to know them and form a bond with them, you can understand their likes and dislikes a lot better. Once you’ve got their likes and dislikes figured out, you can start attaching them to the behavior or task you’d like them to accomplish in the form of a chart.

This sounds weird, right? Like, what if their likes and dislikes have absolutely nothing to do with the task you want them to accomplish, or the behavior you want them to change? It’s okay! Trust me, it works. At least for toddlers up to elementary aged kids. That’s pretty much my realm of experience, so if you are looking for advice for older kids, I’m not your girl! The likes become the reward for achieving the goal and the dislikes become the consequence of not achieving the goal.

Decide what ONE task/goal/behavior you want them to accomplish. It can be tempting to just make their goal, “Behave in class”. But if it was that easy, the child would probably be doing it already. Take it in baby steps. Figure out what you want to tackle first. What is most pressing? It might be having big meltdowns, it might be complying with directions, it might be blurting out. Whatever the WORST behavior is should probably be the first, if possible. If you’re potty-training, you might want to focus on just going potty first and then tackle pooping (no mincing words with this mom of four and kindergarten teacher!), then maybe wiping at another time. Whatever you’re doing…baby steps!

Now, create a chart for this ONE behavior. This helps make it attainable. They don’t feel like they’re set up for failure because it’s just one tiny thing they have to accomplish. Keep in mind, you have to give room for error, especially as they’re starting. You can’t expect perfection right away. If it’s a specific behavior you want to correct, give them a little bit of leeway per portion/period/chunk of the day. When you see that they’ve met this goal for a period of time, it’s time to either up your expectations of that same goal (less leeway, or more times of accomplishing the goal) OR it’s time to go to the next baby-step and change the goal. If they were having huge meltdowns in your classroom and now they aren’t, choose the next behavior that seems to be causing the most problems…possibly completing work, blurting out, getting along with friends, etc.

The most important thing I’ve learned about charts is that they have to be fair, concise and consistent. The kids have to know exactly what the chart is for, how it will work, what will happen if they do or do not meet this goal. It all has to be laid out and explained. It has to work exactly like you tell them it will. You can not just use the chart to give “points” or “stars” or stickers when you think they’ve done a good job. The timing has to be set up and at that exact point, the child earns it or doesn’t. It can’t be done randomly and on your terms. And finally, the hardest part: you have to be consistent in using it. We are asking kids to exhibit a consistent behavior. If we aren’t consistent in monitoring it, they’re never going to be consistent either. You have to use the chart in the exact manner you laid out to the child. If you said you’d give a smiley or sad face after every subject, you HAVE to do it. If you toddler is supposed to get a sticker for going potty, drop what you’re doing and go get the sticker. It’s hard. We’re all busy. We have a ton of other things on our plate. But you have to. The kid is worth it, or you wouldn’t have cared enough to create the chart in the first place!

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