Up Close With Dr. E

Exposing five myths about motivation


Natalie, a two-month-old newborn, alerts herself as a familiar voice — soft, musical, loving — approaches. Her eyebrows lift, her body relaxes, and an oval shape forms on her tiny pink mouth as she speaks: “Goo Goo Gaa Gaa.” When Natalie sees the face connected to this voice, her eyes light up, grow wide, and fix upon the sight of her mother. Saving the best for last, Natalie beams back a baby’s love by igniting her million-megawatt smile.

All of Natalie’s behaviors, including baby talk and smiling, occur without the need for a teacher, textbook or a school building. They occur 100% outside of the process called learning. Her motor movement system, which will allow her to crawl, climb and walk, and her sensory systems, which give her the ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell, are activated by pre-packaged, inborn reflexes which occur automatically. In this sense, all infants start life on an equal footing, determined by genetically hardwired reflexes.

So far, so good. But, what about all the other skills Natalie will need? Like how to tie her shoes, ride a bike, or read a book? These behaviors, unlike reflexes, require a process called learning. Learning a new skill is like the three steps a master chef uses to create an apple pie: Step 1: Take the raw ingredients and mix thoroughly. Step 2: Make the crust. Step 3: Place ingredients in pie crust. Viola! Here is your pie. Wait, you forgot the most important part. Where is the energy, the heat which will cause the molecules of apple, butter, sugar and spices to bounce, mingle, mix and become transformed into something new? You forgot to put the pie in the oven.

When Natalie is taught how to read, a basic recipe will be followed: Add her to a mix which contains a teacher, books, classrooms and homework. But, just like a pie placed in the oven, Natalie must have the energy, or motivation, in order for her to learn. Without motivation, there is no learning — your child becomes a casualty of school failure. So, let’s examine some false ideas or myths about motivation:

Myth #1: “Nothing motivates him.” From first to 10th grade, I avoided homework, reading books and studying. Put another way, I was highly motivated to avoid school tasks. Because I believed that I was not smart, I developed skills with my hands, and playing string instruments fired all my rockets. The above myth is false because, like me, every student is motivated by something. Find that something, connect it to learning, and here comes school success.

Myth #2: “He does good one day, bad the next. He just doesn’t care.” Myth #2 tries to make you believe that motivation is an on/off type of force. No way! Motivation is constant and steady, but many factors can block the child from using their will to succeed in school. Factors such as anxiety, fear, depression or poor impulse control dampen the child’s motivation.

Myth #3: “She is only motivated by rewards.” I teach parents the technology of rewarding their child for doing schoolwork. For example, if a child works hard on their homework, they can earn privileges. This process is called extrinsic motivation and is used to alter behaviors. But true motivation must come from within the child (intrinsic motivation). The goal is to help the child to self-motivate. I do this by using four steps: 1. Identify your child’s true joy or passion (mine was music). If your child does not have a passion, create one. 2. Set goals your child can reach. 3. Praise your child for their efforts in reaching their goals. 4. Use this procedure in other areas of your child’s life, like school.

Myth #4: “ Punishment is the great motivator.” Children who struggle in school already receive punishments from their own thoughts — “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never learn math.” Teachers who use excessive punishments run the risk of damaging one of the most powerful motivators: The child’s belief that their teacher believes in them and in their ability to learn.

The difference between a good student and a great student is not their intelligence or the school they attend. It is their drive to achieve. New research has found that each child has their own unique way of becoming motivated. Motivational profiles are now in the early stages of development. These profiles will help teachers and parents inspire their children to reach beyond their grasp and find their true potential.

The content of this article is for educational purposes only, not treatment. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Reference: “The Motivation Breakthrough”, Lavore, Richard. 2007.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.


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