As regular readers know, I have a deep interest in helping students develop intrinsic motivation (see my book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves and my upcoming book — in March — Self-Driven Learning).

The New York Times today ran a short article (Train a Parent, Spare a Child) that shared some short, sweet and effective advice for doing just that. It’s nothing knew for most readers of this blog and my books, but it’s certainly easy to share the article to colleagues as an introduction to the idea. The article is geared to helping parents deal with their own kids, but is very applicable to the classroom.

The entire article is worth reading, but here are my favorite two parts:


Dr. Deci [Dr. Edward Deci, the most respected researcher on intrinsic motivation in the world] , now a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, said the biggest problem with tangible rewards is that they actually work, at least in the short run. “If you want somebody to do something, and if you have enough money, you can get them do it,” he said. “Practically anyone, practically anything.”

But with children, he pointed out, since you are trying to get them to do the behavior “more or less ongoingly for the rest of their lives,” the technique will backfire unless you’re prepared to offer the same reward every time. “You don’t want them coming to you when they’re grown,” he said.

Dr. Deci recommends a three-step alternative. First, be clear about why what you’re asking them do is important. Second, be interested in their point of view. “If it’s something they hate doing, acknowledge that, tell them you understand it’s not fun, yet the reason they need to do it is as follows,” he said. Finally, communicate in a way that’s not controlling. “Don’t use words like ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to,’ ” he said. “All of those things that convey to them you’re a big person trying to push around a little person.”


I was surprised and, frankly, relieved that all the experts I spoke with said it’s O.K. to resort to old-fashioned, blunt rewards on occasion. If you simply must get that child on the plane or it will take off without you, or if you absolutely need that child to stop misbehaving so you can speak to the doctor, go ahead, bribe away. As Dr. Deci told me, “If you’re under a lot of stress or in a bad place, then having a conversation at that moment is not going to work.”

But, he emphasized, don’t let the situation end there. “You need to sit down the next afternoon when everyone’s calm, talk it through from both sides, then discuss ways so the behavior doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Always use the blow up as a learning moment the next day.”

I’m adding this post to The Best Posts & Articles On “Motivating” Students.