I received a number of e-mails with questions and comments after my January 9 webinar “5 Strategies to Engage & Inspire Kids to Work Harder in School.” I’d like to take this opportunity to answer a couple of questions. (By the way, you can still access the January 9 session by clicking here.)
One person wrote, “I'm currently completing a master's research project that looks at college and career aspirations and its connect to performance,” followed that by a question about the connection between goals and motivation. (Aside: I’m pretty sure this is the same person who asked a question during the Q&A at the end of the webinar.)
I’ll comment with reference to the choice theory that I introduced during the webinar. The first thing to remember is that all people are internally motivated by what they want. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, motivation is not something that comes from the outside and it’s not possible to “motivate” another. To use the language of choice theory, if a student has a strong “quality world picture” regarding their future career, they will be motivated to achieve their goal.
A student with a goal isn’t necessarily motivated to do all the things necessary to achieve. In other words, a goal is a necessary, but not sufficient, variable in achieving success. It’s possible for a student to be focused exclusively on the end point (being an engineer, a pilot, the general manager of a professional sports team, a professional dancer, etc.) It’s not unusual, therefore, for students to clearly articulate their aspirations and then behave in ways that aren’t especially helpful in moving them in the right direction. That’s where they can be helped by a positive relationship with a trusted, caring, and knowledgeable adult who can help them discover all the intervening steps between “wanting” (internal motivation) and achieving success. Motivation alone will not ensure success.
Having said that, the absence of motivation almost assuredly guarantees failure. The student who has no future career goals, aspirations, or dreams will be hard-pressed to muster the necessary motivation to succeed in school. Especially when things become difficult, it will be easy for this student to tune out, withdraw academically, and flounder. If they see no connection between their current actions and their future, they will be forever stuck in the “now,” unable to persevere and do things that may be difficult or unpleasant. We’ll accept difficult, even tedious tasks, when we understand that doing them will help us get what we want.
Since a strong want or quality world picture is necessary for people to achieve success, one of my goals as a parent or educator is to help kids develop compelling goals, giving them the best chance to experience success as adults.
Here is a second question/comment: “When my son was young, I had some difficulties with him, so I consulted a child psychologist. He suggested a behavior chart with external rewards as well as fostering internal rewards. He said, ‘Would you work if you didn't get a paycheck?’ Isn't a paycheck an external reward? And no I wouldn't work without a paycheck. Please comment on this theory.”
Two days after I did the webinar for Funderstanding, I conducted a two-hour session for a school just outside of Boston. I was very well paid. I am generally paid for my work. Like many people, I have a house, car, bills, and three kids who attended college. There is nothing about choice theory and what I teach that suggests people shouldn’t be paid for working. However, I spent well over 100 hours preparing for the webinar that I did on January 9 for Funderstanding. I received no money. And I left that experience feeling satisfied, pleased that I had offered something of value, and excited about the second session on March 19. Unless something wholly unexpected happens, I won’t be paid for that one either. And I’ll work just as hard. And I expect to enjoy it just as much.
I don’t think I’m unusual. I suspect many people reading this have given many hours working as a volunteer at a homeless shelter, or their church, or at their child’s school, or helping a neighbor in need, or tutoring a child who is struggling in school, or …..you get the picture. Of course, most of them work and get paid, but they also engage in lots of other work that is not at all connected to any external reward. Not all work brings pay, nor do we want it to.
Then there’s the “underpaid,” those who receive payment but who willingly receive absurdly low pay. I did a workshop for a Catholic high school in Louisiana a couple of years ago. The woman who coordinated the event had been a professional educator for over thirty years, held two advanced degrees, and was the curriculum coordinator for the school. She told me her pay was equal to that of a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree working in a local public school. She wasn’t rich. She wasn’t a nun. She was married and had children. And bills. She would gladly have accepted more money, but would never leave her school simply to earn more money, an option that was available to her. She would tell you that she didn’t earn as much money as she would like, but she would never say she was “underpaid.” Money isn’t the only motivator. Money isn’t the only reward.
Have you ever met any high school coaches? These people are usually paid a stipend for helping student athletes develop their skills. Some even get a decent amount. But when you calculate how much they are paid per hour, you discover that these men and women would earn considerably more money if they stocked shelves at the local grocery store. As coaches, they put in long hours for relatively low pay. While they appreciate the pay and may even “demand” the pay, they coach for much more than the money they earn. They are internally driven by a desire to help young athletes grow and develop. Coaching on the high school level is another obvious example of people who are paid but who don’t “work for pay.” I’m sure you know of many others.
Why do we do this? Because work is one way to lead a meaningful, purposeful life. When we engage in work without pay, we still are “rewarded,” but the reward is internal. It feels good and helps us satisfy one or more of the needs identified in choice theory (love/belonging, power/competence, freedom, fun, safety/survival.)
About twenty-five years ago, my wife and I built a small shed in our back yard to store our bikes, lawn furniture, the lawn mower, etc. I am no carpenter. Neither is my wife. But we did a pretty good job and were pleased with our success. When my parents saw it and commented on how well it came out (much to my father’s surprise, I might add), my wife and I offered to build a shed for them. We didn’t get paid, but it was a joyful and wholly worthwhile experience. Through unpaid hard work, I satisfied the needs for love/belonging (with my parents), for competence (by building something that was well constructed and fully functional), and for fun (Choice theory teaches us that whenever we learn something new, we have fun. This experience certainly included a lot of new learning.)
I can’t remember where I got this so I can’t credit the source, but I read something once that went something like, “Unless the job means more than the pay, it will never pay anything more.” (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I think I might have read it on a Salada tea bag!)
Those who believe we “work for pay” are both stating the obvious and missing the point. I hope to continue to work and be well compensated for years to come. At the same time, I hope I never reach a point where I’m simply “working for pay.” The day that happens is the day I have been overpaid, regardless of the amount I receive.
All parents need to figure out how to raise their kids. It’s not my job to tell another parent what to do. But I am quite reluctant to offer a child a tangible reward for appropriate behavior. As soon as I link those two, the child naturally focuses on the reward as opposed to focusing on what is more important: appropriate behavior. Appropriate behavior gets downgraded to something that “must be done” to get what is worthwhile: the tangible reward. My wife and I wanted our kids to value appropriate behavior for its own sake, not because they “got something” by behaving appropriately.
We knew that our children would be out of our sight and out of our direct influence much of the time: in school, on the playground, at the mall, away at college, etc. Even if we weren’t there to “catch them being good,” ready with a tangible reward, we still wanted them to behave appropriately. Children who are routinely given an external reward for appropriate behavior are far less likely to internalize the values we want them to internalize and are far less likely to behave appropriately when the external reward is removed. As parents, we certainly didn’t want that for our three children. Now that they are all adults and living on their own, my wife and I are most proud of the fact that we raised three kids who internalized the values that we cared about most as a family. I have my share of regrets, but I certainly don’t regret raising our children based on the principles of choice theory. I don’t just teach and write about these ideas. I do my best to live them.
Thanks to everyone who asked follow-up questions, making the webinar more personal and interactive. I hope you have found these comments interesting and useful.
By Bob Sullo. Bob has been an English teacher, school psychologist, school adjustment counselor, and school administrator. Now he is a full time consultant. Bob has written several bookssabout internal control and motivation including, Teach Them To Be Happy, The Inspiring Teacher, Activating the Desire to Learn and The Motivated Student. You can read Bob’s full bio here. Learn more about Bob and his work by visiting his website,www.internalmotivation.net.
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