Developing Intrinsic Motivation

Teachers often struggle with students who they perceive to be unmotivated. A common debate is whether or not rewards are appropriate for use with students. On one hand, rewards can encourage students to do things they are not otherwise motivated to do.  On the other hand, people often worry that students can become dependent on rewards.  A statement I often hear is
something to the effect of, "Life doesn't reward you every time you do something good."

Well, I disagree. Often, the rewards we receive as adults are more subtle and abstract.  But, we receive concrete rewards too, such as raises, awards, days off and compliments. What makes the difference between adults that are successful on abstract and occasionally concrete rewards and adults that are not?  The road to becoming a successful adult is complicated and there are many paths.  However, when an individual develops self-efficacy, that is, they believe in their own ability to succeed, they are willing to take risks, try difficult things, set high expectations for themselves and make the right choices when faced with difficult situations.

Additionally, when students are rewarded for behaviors they don't already exhibit, they are encouraged to repeat the behavior because it was rewarded. When they repeat the behavior they also experience the other abstract rewards that come with making good choices, such as: a feeling of satisfaction and belonging.  This, in turn, helps the student develop self-efficacy because they  experience success. 

The trick is to fade the rewards.  Whole class systems that reward students at a very low ratio (meaning the behavior is only rewarded occasionally or after a long period of time) help keep students who already have self-efficacy and good habits from being tempted by poor influences.  Students who do not already exhibit the desired behaviors need more frequent reinforcement.  Here are several ways to set up your students for success. 

Begin with rules/expectations set in the desired behavior instead of what not to do.

Embed engaging activities into the day.

Teach character, social skills, conflict resolution.

Offer choices.

Use a behavior system to shape behavior.