The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to motivate older kids without using rewards, punishment or fear. (No, really.)


Bo Burnham’s movie “Eighth Grade” brilliantly captures the challenges facing tweens and teens. Kids at that age are experiencing a complicated and often awkward time of self-discovery and growth. They are concerned with their identity and sense of self, yet much of what they see and experience can thwart their confidence and ability to make healthy, safe choices. It’s our job as parents and educators to help them develop those skills, but it’s not always clear how to do that effectively. It can be tempting to use rewards, threats or even fear to motivate kids, but years of research have concluded that while those things may work in the short term, they typically backfire in developing the intrinsic motivation kids need to make good choices.

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory looks at what motivates people in making choices. The theory assumes that humans are naturally curious to learn and develop knowledge, and it considers autonomy (a sense of control over learning), competence (an ability to handle challenging tasks) and relatedness (feeling a sense of belonging) to be key building blocks in developing an internal motivation to do the right thing.

So what can we do to help kids develop the autonomy, competence and connections they need for intrinsic motivation, both inside and outside the classroom? Here are five key strategies.

It is all about choices. For many students, simply helping them to see that they have options in how they spend their time, how they participate in learning and extracurricular activities, and how they engage with their school and community can empower them, increasing their intrinsic motivation. Even having a defined and limited set of options to choose from can provide a feeling of autonomy. In terms of social media and technology, parents and educators often default to using fear and punishment as motivators to make good choices. But in the longer term, it’s better to give students an opportunity to pick and choose how they spend their time online, to help them develop a greater sense of autonomy. Students who understand that they can be intentional about their experiences online and in real life are more likely to make better choices on their own.

What teens wish their parents knew about social media

Focus on daily habits. Students’ lives often revolve around daily habits related to school and activities: organizing papers, creating to-do lists, prioritizing tasks, managing distractions, and being focused and working proactively for set periods of time. Learning how to manage these daily habits is essential. High school students sometimes feel pressured to choose more rigorous classes than might be appropriate for them because they are worried about college admissions. When that happens, external motivators and indicators of success (for example, grades and test scores) gain a disproportionate amount of influence over a student’s feelings of competency. If students become bogged down by those things, they overlook how much choice and control they can have in their daily habits. That control promotes autonomy. Students feel competent when they are appropriately challenged without being overwhelmed. Encouraging them to choose appropriate classes for their abilities and to focus on establishing good daily habits gives them the foundation they need to develop confidence and competence.

Allow them to pursue an interest or passion. Years ago, I met with a journalist who spent much of her career interviewing people about their work choices. Those whose work was the most fulfilling and energizing typically had a career based on something they liked to do in middle school or high school. Given the opportunity, many students can identify interests and abilities that highlight their competence. Allowing them to pursue those interests can also help them connect what they learn in school to life outside the classroom, and that promotes their desire to learn more and dig deeper into experiences — and perhaps create their own pathway to personal and academic success. Today’s students face two challenges. First, they are often so over-scheduled that they have no free time or space to figure out what they enjoy doing, and, second, they receive so many external messages online and in real life about how they should look, act and be that few of them feel confident enough to step off the predetermined path to college admissions or career success to figure out their talents, abilities and interests.

Encourage positive clusters of connection. A 2014 study published in School Psychology Quarterly surveyed 1,023 fifth-graders at 50 schools and found that those who felt victimized or who perceived their school climate negatively were more likely to have a lower GPA. Students who felt a sense of connection and caring at school are more likely to be academically successful. “Clusters of connection” is a term I use to describe different groups of individuals or places where a person feels a sense of belonging. Ideally, those clusters do not overlap. Clusters of connection can include friends from a soccer team, a music group, summer camp, or an archery class; extended family members; or even an online group. During middle school and high school, friendships ebb and flow, and students may not always connect with the same classmates from year to year. The beginning of the school year is a great time for adults to help students expand their potential clusters of connection by identifying all their networks, and thinking about how they might expand their social circle by introducing themselves to or speaking with three to five classmates that they might not have yet interacted with.

Rethink goal-setting strategies. Students who come up with their own semester- or year-long goals, and then write about how and why those goals are important, can feel a greater sense of control over their learning. Encouraging students to identify academic goals based on daily habits can help them move beyond common external drivers like grades and scores — which can be short-term motivators — to focus on longer term, intrinsically motivated dreams that center on purposeful learning. University of Texas psychology professor David Yeager found that students who have a purpose for learning and connect their learning with making a valuable and positive impact in the world are more intrinsically motivated to be actively engaged in their learning process. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Yeager and his team of researchers found that students who felt a sense of purpose were more likely to push through daily tasks that might seem mundane.

In essence, make it all about the kids. They need to learn that they have choices in how they spend their time online and in real life, and that managing time-consuming distractions could help them spend more time exploring interests, mastering a new skill, or simply relaxing. The idea is to help them feel competent to make changes on their own, which is a key part of intrinsic motivation. It won’t be long before they are running the world, and it benefits all of us if they are intrinsically motivated to do so.

Ana Homayoun is a school consultant and author of three books, most recently “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.” Follow her on Twitter @anahomayoun.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. Join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and balancing a career.

More reading:

Do you discourage your kid from being prideful? Research shows that might not be the way to go.

Four habits that will create resilient kids who can weather life’s challenges

Want your kids to be resilient? Here’s what not to do.