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Getting Your Child Motivated for This School Year: Tips From Teachers in the Trenches

Written by Diana Sticker, Parent Contributor | September 10, 2013

In my first post, Instilling “Stick-to-itiveness”: Teacher Tips on Perseverance and Goal Setting With LD, I talked about the growing understanding of the importance of instilling perseverance in kids with LD for lifelong success. I shared how teachers from The Shadow Project use a personal goal setting technique to encourage perseverance in students with LD.

Kids with LD struggle more than their peers. Often, learning to read and write is hard, math does not make sense and staying on task is challenging. Our kids can experience failure in school. This feeling of failure can creep into every aspect of their lives. As a result, they are more likely to develop low self-esteem, act out, give up and disengage from learning and school. When this happens, they are at risk of not realizing their amazing potential. For this reason, I believe it is critical for us to know how to motivate and inspire them to keep trying.

Teachers in the Trenches

I have been talking with teachers from The Shadow Project to better understand how to motivate kids with LD. The Shadow Project is a Portland, Oregon based non-profit that partners with special education teachers to help discouraged learners achieve their academic and social goals. One of the strategies offered by The Shadow Project is a unique incentive program that is incorporated alongside the teacher curriculum. While working towards personal goals, students may earn tangible rewards such as books, school supplies and gifts for others, and they have the opportunity to celebrate their success with friends from mainstream classrooms. I want to share a story from a special education teacher I spoke with recently who is insightful in finding ways to motivate her students.

Heather and Gregory

Heather is a special education teacher in a low-income public school in Yamhill County, Oregon. Gregory is a very social fourth grader who struggles with reading. He is a little bit rough and tumble and street smart. But underneath his nonchalant, cool manner is a kind and loving boy, always interested in helping other students in the lower grades. But academics were not on his radar.

One of Gregory’s greatest challenges was attendance. He skipped school several days a week. School staff pegged him as a future high school dropout. Heather knew that instilling motivation in Gregory would be hard. The Shadow Project’s standard incentives did not interest him. Nothing did. Or so it seemed. Then one day when Heather was sipping on a cup of hot chocolate Gregory said, “Hey that’s a Dutch Bros. Can I have one?”

She took that opportunity to strike an unusual deal. (Typically, she does not use food as a motivator.) “I will buy you a warm beverage or coffee drink, not full of sugar or triple shots of espresso, if you come to school 15 days in a row.” She knew that he drank coffee at home. He agreed and they made up the calendar. It took him 6 weeks to complete 15 consecutive days, starting over when he missed a day. But he did it! He decided on a white chocolate mocha. He chose not to do the challenge again, but for the rest of the year he attended school regularly.

The following year the staff always praised him for his attendance. But again around the same time of year, he started to falter. Perhaps his relapse in attendance was because now that he was a fifth grader, he had to walk to school by himself. Or perhaps because keeping on track, trying again and again to learn, became too much. The reasons were probably a little of both.

Looking for a way to motivate Gregory again, Heather noticed that Gregory liked spending time with the younger children in the classroom. Since she has multiple group lessons going on at the same time, she gave Gregory the opportunity to be a tutor. He loved his new role. She noticed his attendance rose again. Later, he shared a secret. Gregory said, “I love coming to school because when I grow up want to be a teacher.” Luckily for Heather and Gregory, they found what motivated him and brought him happiness at school. Today he is on a different path. He is on the road to graduation. He is actively involved in school with consistent attendance. Heather often reminds Gregory what a great teacher he will be because he already understands the hard work involved in learning.

Tips for Parents

Heather was able to come up with an innovative way to motivate Gregory, who finished fifth grade with near-perfect attendance. Heather shared several tips with me on how to motivate kids with LD.

  • Know your child. Get to know what motivates your child. Pay attention to what he wants. Encourage him to communicate and share what he likes. And remember to ask hi what the reasoning is behind his desires.
  • Start small. Start with small rewards. Increase the incentives as your child’s effort increases. When a child sees the results of her effort build little by little, she learns the power of working toward a goal.
  • Be flexible. Put some thought into your chosen rewards. Some ideas might work better than others. But recognize it can take a little trial and error to determine the best motivators for your child.
  • Ask for input. Discuss options with your child and let him have input. But remember, you can help pick what you deem appropriate. For example, if there is a problem with something your child suggests as a reward, like a gooey toy that will end up sticking to the back seat of the car, see if you can find an alternative, like a squishy ball that still has tactile rewards without the mess.
  • Mix it up. The novelty of a reward can wear off. Be creative and mix it up.
  • Celebrate their success. Talk with your child about how hard she is working and celebrate her success. Make sure she fully understands the reasoning behind a reward. Reinforce the “I did it!” feeling. Praise her for her efforts. And help her notice the intrinsic rewards achieved in the process.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

As parents, it is good to understand that there are two main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. When a student is intrinsically motivated, he participates in an activity for the pure joy of learning or interest in the topic. When a student is extrinsically motivated, he is doing an activity in order to get a tangible reward, avoid a punishment, or to receive a high grade.

There are different schools of thought on using incentives in the classroom. A large concern is that extrinsic rewards can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. For a great research article on using incentives in the classroom check out, Using Rewards to Teach Students with Disabilities, Implications for Motivation, by Bradley S. Witzel and Cecil D. Mercer.

Heather believes that many kids with LD need to start with external motivators before they can move to internal motivation. Using extrinsic rewards allows students to celebrate their willingness to stay engaged and keep trying. Her hope is that extrinsic rewards, if used smartly, can build a bridge to instilling intrinsic motivation.

In Summary

Heather and Gregory’s story is just one example of how a teacher found an innovative way to motivate a student with LD who was at risk for dropping out. Every child is different and every situation is different. Perhaps for my child, I would not choose a coffee reward. But Heather noticed what interested Gregory and used that information to urge him to participate in school. As parents, we need to do the same thing. Listen to your kids, pay attention to what motivates them, guide them in choosing appropriate goals, help them find innovative ways to stay motivated and celebrate their perseverance and success. And whenever you can, follow your gut. It always seems to know!


Diana Sticker is a former research professional with a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She and her daughter have dyslexia. Diana is a Board Member of The Shadow Project, a nonprofit that partners with special education teachers to close the achievement gap for children with learning challenges. Also, she a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, a grassroots parent movement that strives to bring dyslexia awareness to public schools.

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