Intrinsic Motivation: How to motivate little minds

June 28, 2019

Intrinsic Motivation. As a human, I feel it within my soul. I know the things I feel motivated to complete and the people I feel motivated to please. I have it —and I’m sure you do to—but how did we get here? How long did it take? Certainly we all found ours at different paces and for different reasons, but is there a faster way?

As teachers, intrinsic motivation feels like an elusive goal. When I say the words in my head in this context, it’s in this eerie voice—almost like a fortune teller (or Professor Trelawney for my fellow Harry Potter fans). It happens naturally; I think because inspiring intrinsic motivation in our students can feel as unrealistic as a palm reading. We try to think of the most outside of the box ways to get our kids to feel that sense of urgency and drive when completing their assignments and studying for assessments. Some find that in extrinsic motivation, like class economy systems, but this is often fleeting… leaving teachers on a never ending search for the next best thing. Ideally, extrinsic motivation helps students identify their true potential, instilling in them a lifetime of motivation driven by their success. Realistically, teachers get a few good weeks out of a student before the inevitable—students’ interests change or the impact wears off.

Despite how unattainable it can feel, great teachers know it is worth the hunt. Those of us who experience intrinsic motivation don’t need to do research to understand the benefits…higher standards, stronger work ethic, increased follow-through resulting in greater self-awareness, improved assessment scores and higher self-confidence. Intrinsic motivation is the key to unlocking success.

I’m not proud to say I’ve fallen victim to many of the extrinsic motivation trends. Don’t get me wrong—there are many benefits to class economy systems and external rewards. In fact, I use ClassDojo on a daily basis. That said, I believe we need to rethink our goals in using these systems. Rather than points, stickers, and fake dollars as a means of rewarding students, we might use incentives to track the number of times a student demonstrates a skill and recognize them accordingly. Awards over rewards.

I think extrinsic motivation ultimately fails because the students are not in control of the rewards. Even when we say “you’ll receive this award for this behavior,” it’s at the teacher’s discretion, not the students’. We can tell students until we’re blue in the face that they have the power, but extrinsic rewards are rooted in the what. Intrinsic motivation, however, is rooted in the why. So if we’re not using extrinsic motivation to ignite the fire inside, how do we do it?

This year, I put a lot of thought into how I can reach the kids who have no interest in external rewards and consistently reach those who find extrinsic rewards fleetingly motivating. I found that in being so explicitly intentional, my students were in the intrinsic motivation HOV lane. Ultimately I came up with 2 interconnected strategies that got and kept them there.

Classroom Culture

Before you begin setting up your classroom procedures and expectations, consider your ultimate goal. Mine is a Room 210 mini-Utopia of affirmations. I build all my plans around how I want my students to speak to one another. I focus my efforts on forming positive, deep relationships with each of my students, finding one genuine compliment to build upon as often as I can. I moderate my tone of speech to model how I’d like them to speak to me and each other – I can’t expect my students not to yell at each other if that’s the means of communication I’m endorsing. Creating a genuine (emphasis on genuine) positive class culture allows for vulnerability, but it also breeds confidence. The students, instead of competing with each other, are encouraging one another’s success. They feel the love and spread it with their words and actions. They begin to see themselves in a new light because their teachers and peers are committed to fostering their growth.

Transparency through constant communication and recognition

My students expect to meet with me, and often. In the beginning of the year, I’d get a lot of “uhmmm am I…in…trouble?” but by January, the kids anxiously anticipated their “meeting time”. They’d come full of things to say – “Mrs. Greene, remember I was struggling with fractions on the number line…did you see my quiz this week?” We meet about lots of things – we reflect on quiz results, on assignment completion, and on behavior. We talk academic progress and, even in 5th grade, we talk about the lack there of. I explicitly link both poor and great assignment/assessment results to poor and great behavior. My students learned quickly that I saw them and that I was committed to helping them become more self-aware. This taught them more about the impact of focus, choices, and their power to succeed. By meeting with my students frequently, I was able to recognize them for their progress, identify their need for growth and verbalize it in a personal way. This fostered a reciprocal motivation – they wanted to bring positive things to our meeting table, not just because they wanted to please me, but because they wanted the adult in the room to help them understand how their efforts directly impacted their success.

How are these connected? Student voice!

While, naturally, I believe my strategies are the best, I recognize that what these strategies actually produce – student voice – is the ultimate reason my students became tiny models of excellence in intrinsic motivation, and there are tons of great ways to get there. Students need to feel that they have a voice and that it matters. What’s the incentive to be motivated otherwise? If they’ve got to do as you say, not as you do day in and day out, they’ll feel more like robots on a factory line than the humans, they are – humans that have the capacity to think, express, learn, question, create, and share. I leave you with this – encourage your students’ creativity; ask them questions; get to know them and what makes them tick…no matter what your strategy for raising student voice is, if you do these things, your days of buying token systems on TPT will be long behind you…

How do you provide opportunities for uplifting student voice in your classroom? Share your insights on social media!

Nicole Greene, NBCT

Nicole Greene is a special education teacher in NYC and an Exceptional Needs NBCT, working with students in grades 4-12. She earned her education degree at Stony Brook University and is a proud Seawolf Alum. Nicole has committed her career to working with students who learn and think differently, learning about and advocating for educational equity, mentoring new teachers, and being a social justice accomplice (be more than an ally!). You can keep up with Nicole on Twitter @MrsG_ENSNBCT (she’s very proud to be an NBCT if you can’t tell)!