Beyond the Table and Little Kids Part 4: When Learning Isn’t Fun & Grades Don’t Matter

Now that we have a better understanding of why problem behaviors occur & some general strategies to help, the next two posts will focus on more specific issues commonly faced in general education classrooms. The first of these is when kids simply aren’t motivated. Think of the students that you have taught who couldn’t care less about grades, teacher recognition, or school-wide incentives. Yes, ABA techniques CAN help these kids!

Strategy #5 Increasing Motivation

For some students, motivation comes easy. Good grades or approval from others may be more than enough for them to do their very best day-in and day-out (this was me!). But if we’re being honest, there are many kids who just aren’t yet motivated by these natural, positive consequences…or maybe it just isn’t motivating enough given how hard the work is for them. For these students, it is critical to use something extra or different to get them more motivated! Think about this: if no one ever motivates them somehow, they probably won’t contact the natural consequences that we want them to care about—so then why would they ever come to care about those consequences at all!? We MUST think outside the box to boost their motivation so that they can actually experience the benefits of working hard. If we can successfully do so, there is a much better chance that the natural consequences will eventually start working. If we simply wait for a student to be motivated by the things that they “should” be motivated by, we are not doing our job as teachers.

So, what does this look like? First, you have to consider things/activities that your student will be willing to WORK FOR. Remember, this is different than something they just LIKE. I will gladly accept a cookie or candy any day, but I’m not going to do my job in exchange for them! Kids may like privileges that can be earned through a school-wide incentive system, but they may not being will to work for these things. To start finding motivators that a student will work for, you may be able to brainstorm options and ask the student to rank them. Other students may already know of some things that they would like to earn that are reasonable.  Once you have some ideas, the only way to know if they are truly motivating is by using them and watching the effects on a student’s behavior. You may not get it right the first time and you may have to switch these items/activities up frequently to keep things interesting, and that’s okay. The key is to continuously be thoughtful about whether what you are using is actually motivating (i.e., a reinforcer). Here are a few things we’ve used in classrooms before: helping jobs, computer time, library trips, teacher/principal visits, playing games, among many others. You may have to get creative (or do like me and ask for help with ideas)!

Once you identify reinforcers, the next step is to decide how they will be earned. One of the most common mistakes with this step is setting the bar TOO HIGH at first. If a student must be perfect for an entire week when they currently struggle to stay motivated for one day, they will likely give up on day 2. What if someone told you that you could earn a car? You’d be pretty excited, right? But what if they then said you had to run 10 miles every morning for 1 month to earn it? I have even run a marathon and I think I would give up on day 1 if someone offered that to me! You may have the perfect reinforcer, but if you make it too hard to earn off the bat then it likely isn’t going to make a difference at all. The key is to start easy and then gradually increase the requirement for earning reinforcers as progress is made. This may take some trial-and-error on your part, but as long as you are clearly communicating the expectation each day, there is nothing wrong with making adjustments.

By now, people are usually thinking a couple of things: 1) What if the other children get jealous? & 2) What if the student learns to constantly expect rewards for everything they do? Let’s go ahead and address these issues before you worry about them too much. Other children may not understand why Johnny gets to earn something special for doing what they do all the time; however, this should not be what keeps us from helping Johnny get back on track. You may need to explain that some things are harder for Johnny than for them and vice versa. In other situations, you may be able to make the system discrete enough so that other students aren’t aware of what is being earned. At the end of the day, every student is different and, thus, may need different strategies to grow in particular ways. Based on age and other factors, each teacher should determine how to best plan for and address peers’ reactions to the use of these strategies. The second concern mentioned above will only become a reality if expectations never change. For example, if Johnny earns homework passes for every math worksheet he completes for an entire year, I would guess he’d likely continue expecting this reward the next school year for completing math worksheets. On the other hand, if Johnny starts the year earning homework passes for every math worksheet; but then math becomes a little easier and he is then expected to complete 3, then 4, then 5 (and so on) worksheets before earning a homework pass, it is unlikely that he will get “stuck” with an unrealistic expectation. The goal is always to fade these reinforcers gradually until the student is using the same system as his peers.

Hopefully this post gives you some ideas for the students in your class who struggle to do what’s expected. Remember, even though we want our students to be motivated by good grades & approval, this just doesn’t come naturally for all students. We must start somewhere for that to actually happen; and, for many things in life, even adults don’t dish out effort “for free.” Stay tuned for our final post of this series – we think it will hit home on another big challenge that all teachers experience!



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