Regardless of our working titles (parent, therapist, teacher), we are all educators for our children. We are responsible for teaching our children how to be the best “them” that they can be. In order to be effective educators, we should keep foremost in our minds what it is that motivates our child to learn. If we have a child with special needs, we are required to become creative in the motivational techniques we employ to engage children in the learning process.
Ideally, we can guide our children to become intrinsically motivated to learn. Intrinsic motivation is that internal reward (satisfaction) of doing a good job. Feeling pride is an intrinsic reward. By using games and simulations, we can make the learning process more engaging and entertaining. Having fun is another intrinsic reward. Not every activity can be fun. Learning new things can be challenging and intimidating. There are some situations that call for some serious rewards at the end. Sometimes “have a good feeling because you did a good job” is not enough. This gives me pause.
What is reward enough?
I’ve been thinking a lot about paychecks. Most adults don’t work for free. Yet we expect our children to work with no end in sight for no paycheck. We want our children to love learning and work hard for the sake of learning. However, most need something more tangible and concrete in order to focus their attention on learning.
External motivation is pretty easy with adults. Give us money and we’re going to be happy. Children are more challenging to motivate. For many of our kids, there is little difference between $1 and $100. Each child is different, and if that isn’t enough, sometimes what is motivating one day is not interesting at all the next. It is our job to ensure that the reward (or paycheck) is of value. It is easy to become complacent and provide the same choices every day. (BORING!!!) Or we get so good at rewarding behavior or work that the child appears not to need the paycheck anymore so we stop providing the options. Whoa. What? I think we’ve all been guilty a time or two of short changing on the reward because we know the skill is there and to our minds, not much effort is involved. Often, we just need to remind ourselves to do what works. Rewarding hard work or expected behavior is not bribing. I know there are those who think that it is just a bribe when we give children rewards for doing what is expected. I do not feel bribed when I cash my paycheck. In the same way, I do not feel like I am bribing when I give a child 5 minutes of iPad time after working for 30 minutes. I am honoring a contract. We negotiate before we start working.
I like to use a visual representation of what I am offering, and frequently, I use a timer to keep us on task. For most children, just knowing there is something good at the end of the task is incentive. The incentive is strengthened if the child participates in the choosing of the reward.
We can make any task fun (or at the very least, tolerable) when we use appropriate rewards. Math homework can be fun. Yes, it can….if we all get ice cream at the end. Sharing toys with a sibling with a happy attitude can be accomplished, if everyone gets a little individual time with the toy later. Some outside the box thinking may be required, but we do that every day. We are educators.
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