Motivation and your child.

There are a number of people in the world capitalizing on motivation and factors that influence someones willingness to act.  The video gaming industry for example includes games designed specifically with “flow” in mind so that you are SO motivated to play that people have actually died playing.  Social media is so enthralling that society (the teen segment specifically) is replacing actual face-to-face interactions for computer aided ones.  Apple’s branding was/is so engaging that people had to have the iPhone, like a thneed!  Success or capitalization at this level blurs the lines between intrinsic motivation and addiction.  On the other end of the spectrum is the US education system, so un-motivating and abstract that kids continually drop out.  Yes, it’s apples and oranges but it raises the point:

What can education learn from the psychology of motivation and how can it be applied?

In speech therapy its called building rapport.  Where you develop a strong enough bond with a client that they are then comfortable and willing to do something that is difficult for them with very little in extra reward such as stickers or a prize box of small trinkets or a quick game at the end of a session.  The issue is that as the task difficulty increases the skill level has to match otherwise you are at risk of boredom or anxiety of failure (see linked graph below).  The solutions lie in understanding some basic tenants of therapy and motivation.

Screenshot click image for link

Screenshot click image for link

Flow, aka Zones of Proximal Development

In my speech therapy sessions I identify the specific level that the child is performing at with regards to our treatment goals.  I then create tasks that are focused on that specific level of skill and one step above – scaffolding.  As the child makes gains in skill, the task increases in difficulty to keep up – avoiding boredom/anxiety – until the goal is met.  Being a dynamic system there are bound to be issues, which is where that extra sticker chart or prize box comes into play…I personally prefer some form of game time where I can still control the structure of interaction and incorporate goal-related challenges when they are “done”.  But there is much more going on behind the scenes that I’m working to create other than increasing/decreasing task difficulties.

Extrinsic motivation is the use of behavioral controls like the ‘game time’, or time with the iPad for doing chores and other carrots that we hold over children’s heads to get them to do what we want.  Those are simple to create and at the right level get immediate results.  Intrinsic motivators are much more complex and involve concepts of the self and actual or imagined realities.  The following factors that affect intrinsic motivation come from chapter 5 of Dr. Edward Vockell’s book Educational Psychology: A practical approach, which is freely available to read online (…well most of it is online):

Challenge, Curiosity, Control, Fantasy, Competition, Cooperation, Recognition.

A good therapist provides goals and tasks that are appropriately challenging, develops activities that are interesting enough to hold attention while limiting distractions, and doles out healthy amounts of recognition.  Great therapists go in further by fostering feelings of control/empowerment, model and incorporate positive fantasy where the child begins to see him/her self as the master of the skill, and add competition and/or cooperation as needed to fit the personality style and self esteem of the child. Great therapists use these factors to make rapid progress and build lasting results.

Great branding, synergy, flow, being in the zone, whatever you want to call it, they are intentional attempts to manipulate the factors of intrinsic motivation – most heavily Fantasy.  Over the years your child creates a value system based upon all of this input, forms attitudes for or against products/actions/issues, and exercises control of the resulting “free will”. As a parent you are often fighting these campaigns – which is harder with special needs children.  Educators and therapists however are on your side, but we need to work together.

When it comes to your child, you are the expert

Help your teachers and therapists by letting them know about your child’s likes and dislikes, if your child was having a bad day, other stressors in family relationships, if they are giving their best effort, etc.  Knowing these inconsistent factors that impact motivation help significantly when creating an environment for learning and when working to shape and build internal motivation for success.  You can also keep Vockell’s 7 factors in mind as well when you are at home with your kids helping with homework or carryover of treatment goals, or more importantly when you want them to want to do the dishes.

Here are some more practical ideas for use at home or when you want to have those discussions with your therapist/educator (from