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Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning on the Tuned-Out Child
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Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning on the Tuned-Out Child

by Richard Lavoie

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The Motivation Breakthrough explores proven techniques and strategies—based on six possible motivational styles—that will revolutionize the way teachers and parents inspire kids with learning disabilities to succeed and achieve.

Backed by decades of experience in the classroom, educator and acclaimed author Rick Lavoie explodes common myths and


The Motivation Breakthrough explores proven techniques and strategies—based on six possible motivational styles—that will revolutionize the way teachers and parents inspire kids with learning disabilities to succeed and achieve.

Backed by decades of experience in the classroom, educator and acclaimed author Rick Lavoie explodes common myths and gives specific advice for motivating children with learning disabilities. He outlines parents’ and teachers’ roles, suggesting ways in which they can work together to encourage any child to reach his or her potential. Finally, he reveals what we can learn from some of the most powerful motivators in the world: advertisers. With empathy and understanding, Lavoie offers parents and teachers the key to unlocking enthusiasm and responsiveness, proving any child can be motivated to learn.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Rick's experiences as an educator, father, and consultant shine through as he describes obstacles to motivation and eloquently articulates interventions that will be most effective in sparking the interest and joy of kids, especially given their different needs." -- Robert Brooks, Ph.D., author of The Self-Esteem Teacher and coauthor of Raising Resilient Children

"Sheer genius! Lavoie's gift for creatively motivating even the most difficult students is unrivaled. A must-read for educators who want to learn from a master teacher!" -- Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S., author of Teaching Teens with ADD and ADHD and coauthor of A Bird's-Eye View of Life with ADD and ADHD

"Rick succeeds in emphasizing how important it is for adults to know what motivates children. The Motivation Breakthrough is a valuable resource for all of us who are searching for ways to inspire and discover that elusive motivational spark in our children." -- Richard L. Goldman, M.Ed., director, Schools Attuned, Los Angeles; assistant director, Center for Teaching and Learning, California State University, Northridge

"Rick Lavoie reminds us on every page that we all possess the power to shape a child's future. The Motivation Breakthrough offers concrete strategies and reveals the most powerful and effective secrets for boosting a child's confidence, self-esteem, and motivation." -- Donna Goldberg, author of The Organized Student

"Richard Lavoie's work has become a centerpiece in teacher preparation curriculum across the United States. The principles espoused by Lavoie in this book are testimony to what many effective educators have known for a long time: in learning, often the journey is just as important as the destination. This is a must-read for anyone connected with the field of education." -- Michael E. Spagna, Ph.D., professor and executive director, the Center for Teaching and Learning, Michael D. Eisner College of Education, California State University, Northridge

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The Motivation Breakthrough
6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child

By Richard Lavoie
Copyright © 2008 Richard Lavoie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743289610

From Part IUnderstanding and Fostering Student Motivation

Student Motivation: What It Is and What It Is Not

"If there is anything that we wish to change in a child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could be better changed in ourselves." -- Carl Jung

Several years ago, I designed and delivered a workshop entitled "I Can't" Versus "He Won't": Motivational Issues in Special Education. This awkwardly titled seminar was designed to acquaint teachers and parents with basic information about motivation, the impact of learning problems on motivation, and strategies to improve a student's efforts in the classroom and at home.

I was delivering the seminar to the faculty of a small Midwestern high school during a staff development day. Among the audience members was a stern-looking middle-aged gentleman who -- I later learned -- taught United States history and civics. He sat tight-lipped with his arms crossed firmly throughout the seminar. Although we never spoke to each other during the workshop, his body language clearly communicated that he was not buying what I wasselling. He rolled his eyes and sighed audibly several times during my presentation. He shifted impatiently in his seat and glanced at his watch repeatedly. His behavior demonstrated that he had not begged his supervisor to allow him to attend a motivation workshop that day.

At the conclusion of the seminar, I opened the floor to questions. I was disheartened -- but not surprised -- to see this gentleman's hand shoot up. I acknowledged him and he stood and stared icily at me. "Your workshop had a lot of suggestions and plenty of reasons why kids aren't motivated to learn, but I am in total disagreement with your premise."

"And what is the source of our disagreement?" I asked, tentatively.

"Quite simply, it's not my job to motivate these kids. If they come to my class and they want to sit quietly and learn history, I will gladly give them the facts, information, and concepts that they need. If they are not motivated to learn, they can sit in the back of the class and sleep if they wish. It's their choice. It's their loss. I communicate information...and I do that very well. But if a kid doesn't care to learn it, that is not my problem. It's his problem. I'm a teacher, not a cheerleader."

We discussed...and argued...and debated...and dickered...and quarreled.

Because we disagreed so fundamentally on this issue, the discussion became quite heated. Finally, I said in some frustration, "But there are many legitimate reasons why a student can lack motivation: fear of failure, lack of understanding, learning disorders, frustration. Every learning theorist from Piaget to Gardner has stated that the learning process begins with motivation. Without motivation, there is no learning. Attempting to teach a child who is unmotivated is as futile as hammering on cold steel."

"But it's not my job!" he countered.

"It is your job, sir. Quite simply, kids don't come with batteries included. You've got to provide the batteries if you want them to function."

I don't believe that I was successful in changing the gentleman's mind, but our exchange did give me a better title for the seminar. I renamed the workshop "Batteries Not Included: Motivating the Struggling Learner," and have delivered programs throughout North America, Australia, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

Most teachers and parents recognize that motivation is the key to learning. Reflect for a moment on your favorite teacher in high school. The chances are that he was an effective motivator. He inspired you. He was not merely a teacher, he was also a leader.

He did not necessarily make learning fun, but he made learning attainable and purposeful. Whether you serve children as a teacher, parent, coach, or instructor, you will multiply your effectiveness immeasurably if you learn how to motivate your charges and maintain that motivation throughout the learning process.

I began my study of student motivation in the twentieth year of my education career. I interviewed dozens of teachers about student motivation and was surprised and disheartened to find how little my colleagues knew about this important topic. The more I learned about this subject, the more I came to realize that I, also, did not have an effective repertoire of motivational techniques. I tended to use a "one size fits all" approach with my students wherein I expected all of the children to be motivated by the same star chart, checklist, or reward system. This broad approach left many children unmotivated and uninspired. I was able to motivate many of my students. I analyzed the approaches and strategies that were successful with these children. My successes, I came to recognize, were almost accidental -- nearly serendipitous. I made no conscious attempt to match the child to the motivational technique. I merely had the good fortune to use a motivational strategy that, by happenstance, seemed to inspire a particular child.

After observing one of my classes a generous superior once commented that I was "a natural motivator." I wasn't, and now that I have a better understanding of the intricacies of this complex process we call "motivation," I realize a truly "natural motivator" is a rare, rare person indeed. In order to establish and maintain the motivation of a fellow human being, or a classroom filled with fellow human beings, one must understand the complexities inherent in this elaborate motivation process.

It is important that adults learn what motivation is! But it is equally important that they unlearn what motivation is not! I have yet to find an undergraduate- or graduate-level curriculum that effectively addresses this fundamental concept. Teachers' lack of training and exposure to the basic tenets of childhood motivation results in a corps of American teachers who are unable to understand or implement effective motivational techniques.

The media bombards us incessantly with the bad news emanating from America's classrooms. Test scores are down, dropout rates are up, and school violence is on the rise while school attendance declines. Students' high-risk behaviors (drug use, sexual activity, delinquency) increase while SAT scores plummet in some communities. There are innumerable reasons for these statistics, many of which are beyond the control of parents and school personnel. But student motivation is clearly a factor in these upsetting educational trends. This fact should serve as a clarion call to America's parents and professionals to focus time, energy, and other resources on the study and exploration of motivation.

This book is designed to explore and, to a degree, demystify the complex process of motivating school-aged children. First, we will explore and explode some of the most common myths and misconceptions that impact our understanding of motivation. Following this unlearning, the processes of learning and relearning can begin. Second, we will discuss and demonstrate the significant impact that learning disorders can have upon a student's ability to maintain his motivation in the classroom, at home, and on the playing field.

The final, and perhaps primary, focus of the book will be a collection of field-tested strategies designed to create, foster, and maintain the motivation of children in a variety of settings.

It is not overstating the case to say that our nation's future depends greatly on our ability to motivate our children today. This fact should inspire all adults to become more effective motivators. In the sage words of Charles Kettering, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."

Myths and Misconceptions About Student Motivation

"Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn't...do something else." -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Today's teachers and parents should heed FDR's sage advice. Often, we continue to repeatedly use traditional "motivational techniques" despite the obvious fact that these strategies are not working effectively. I recall a simmering teacher bringing an errant and unmotivated student into my office and complaining, "I have kept Josh in for recess fifteen days in a row and he still isn't doing his math homework."

Well, let's circle the slow learner in this picture. The strategy is not working. Try something else!

Because we are unable to inspire our students by igniting their intrinsic (internal) motivation, we try to motivate them extrinsically by establishing a complex tapestry of tests, quizzes, evaluations, and grades. In effect, we force them to be motivated to master the targeted curriculum. ("I know that you will never need to use these algebra equations in real life, Tucker, but you must learn them because they will be on Friday's test.") This unrelenting coercion seems to be a rather unfair use of our power over children. We can do better.

I have come to recognize that most teachers and parents adhere to a false and shaky set of beliefs related to motivation. These misconceptions must be shelved before we can embrace a more enlightened motivational approach.

Motivation Myth #1

"That Danny...NOTHING motivates that kid."

Any teacher or parent who makes this statement is displaying a sad lack of knowledge about the true nature of student motivation.

We must come to understand the most basic tenet of human motivation. This concept is the keystone upon which the remaining pages of this book rest. The simple but profound concept is the following: All human behavior is motivated!

EVERY behavior that we manifest on any given day is motivated. If a reader decides to stop reading this book at this point, I cannot state that the person is "not motivated." She was motivated to stop reading. If a friend of mine stops calling me on a weekly basis, I cannot say, "He is unmotivated to maintain the friendship." Rather, he is motivated to end the relationship.

Let's consider that student who sits in the rear of the classroom in your fifth-period math class. He rests his head on the desk, never volunteers an answer, and fails to participate in class discussions and demonstrations. The temptation is to say "This kid is unmotivated." You would be wrong. Rather, he is motivated to rest his head on the desk, keep silent, and not participate! In point of fact, he is motivated and may indeed be among the most motivated students in your class. But his motivation is not to learn math. His motivation focuses on avoiding failure, preventing frustration, or even angering the teacher.

It is incorrect to say "This kid is not motivated." Rather, the correct assessment of the situation is that he is not motivated to do that which you wish him to do.

At the conclusion of a speaking engagement in a major northwestern American city, a young man approached me from the audience and asked if he could share a story with me. He was visibly upset, as evidenced by his shaky hands and mournful voice. We sat backstage in the auditorium as he related his experience.

"My dad left my life when I was in the third grade. I came downstairs one morning and he was gone. He simply packed up his belongings and left my mother, my two older brothers, and me.

"That was seventeen years ago and I have not seen him since. I do not know where he is. I do not know if he is alive or dead and -- God help me -- I don't care. I have come to realize that the day he left was, on reflection, the greatest day of my life.

"He was a terrible person. Probably the most evil person I have ever known. I was the youngest of three brothers. I was the smallest and the weakest. As a result, my dad used to beat me. Regularly and severely. He beat me for the simple reason that he ENJOYED beating me. He didn't need a reason. He would reach across the dinner table and slap me without provocation. He was a bully and I hated him for that.

"But generally when he beat me, he had been drinking and he would hit me in the living room or the kitchen. I was faster than he was, and I could easily escape by running outside, waiting until he fell asleep, and then sneaking back into the house.

"But on the occasion when I made a mistake or did something wrong, I got what my brothers and I called a 'bathroom beating.' My father would drag me into the bathroom, close and lock the door behind us, and simply beat me until he got tired of beating me. In a 'bathroom beating' you couldn't escape. If you ran into the shower, he was there. If you hid behind the toilet, he was there. If you sought shelter in the linen closet, he was there. A bathroom beating was reserved for situations in which I had broken a rule or made a mistake.

"In the first grade I couldn't read. I struggled and struggled to break the code, but I was simply unable to do so. They had a unique way of teaching reading in my school district at that time. On the first Thursday of each month -- shortly after morning recess -- Mrs. Donovan, the reading specialist, would arrive at our classroom. She would require all the poor readers to come to the front of the class and read aloud to the other children. This ritual was extremely embarrassing for me. But I devised a strategy to avoid the humiliation.

"On the day that Mrs. Donovan was scheduled to visit our class, I would go into the boys' room during recess. I would take my reading glasses and crack one of the lenses on the sink or simply twist the glasses until they broke in half.

"I would approach Mrs. Donovan as soon as she arrived and explain to her that I couldn't read that day because my glasses were broken.

"I did that every first Thursday for five months -- with the full knowledge that when I showed my parents the broken glasses that evening, I was going to receive a bathroom beating."

A sad and troubling story, indeed. But the most disturbing aspect of the tale is this: I am certain that, if you were to review this young man's first-grade assessments, Mrs. Donovan doubtless labeled him "unmotivated." After all, nobody recuses himself from remedial reading five sessions in a row with the same excuse unless he is purposely trying to avoid it.

I would submit that this child was extremely motivated. In fact, he was probably one of the most highly motivated children that Mrs. Donovan would meet in her career. HIS MOTIVATION WAS TO AVOID EMBARRASSMENT, and he was willing to receive a beating from a grown man once each month in order to achieve his goal. Imagine the magic that would have occurred if Mrs. Donovan had been able to transfer that boy's motivation to learning to read and away from avoiding reading.

The boy's problem was not a lack of motivation. Rather, it was misdirected motivation.

Motivation Myth #2

"That kid! One day he is motivated, the next day he is not!"

This oft-stated complaint is generally untrue. The field of psychology recognizes motivation as a relative constant. That is, if a child is motivated to learn math, he is motivated to learn math all the time. If he is not motivated to learn math, he is not motivated to learn math -- all the time.

The child's performance, productivity, and progress may vary from day to day, but this generally does not reflect inconsistent motivation. This behavior more likely reflects the child's inconsistent and often unpredictable learning style, which will be detailed later in this chapter.

An analogy may be helpful. Let's substitute "love" for "motivation." You love your husband. That love is a constant in your life and his. Now, as in any marriage, some days are better than others. On any given day you may be angry or upset with him as the result of an argument or disagreement, but despite these temporary feelings, you still love him. If he were to become ill unexpectedly, you would assist and care for him because of this love. Annoyance is temporary; love is permanent. Poor school performance and productivity are temporary; motivation is permanent.

It is important to understand and embrace this concept because it provides insight into the frustration that children often feel when they have difficulty mastering information and skills despite their motivation to learn.

Motivation Myth #3

"Give him something; that will motivate him."

Many -- perhaps most -- parents and teachers attempt to motivate children by giving them rewards as incentives. Dad may promise Shannon five dollars for every A that she receives on her report card. Her teacher awards her stickers based on her homework performance. Her soccer coach buys the team pizzas after a particularly good practice. Although these responses are well intentioned and may even have a temporary impact on Shannon's behavior, they will do little to improve or enhance her motivation.

Providing rewards in an attempt to boost motivation is a corruption of a widely used behavior management technique known as the Premack Principle. This strategy is often referred to as Grandma's Rule: If you eat your vegetables, you will get dessert. If you do X for me, I will give you Y. Although this technique may modify a child's behavior, it will do little to modify his motivation. Shannon may work diligently in school in order to receive an A and be granted the five-dollar reward. But her goal is not to progress in school or gain new skills. Her goal is to receive the money.

In order to be an effective motivator, one must understand the significant difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Our goal with children is to foster lasting motivation that is inspired by their desire to learn and grow. Reward systems that emphasize tangible incentives can actually serve to decrease motivation in the long run.

Extrinsic motivation consists of systems or policies that encourage the child to earn rewards by behaving in a manner that promotes learning. These systems can serve a useful and constructive purpose by reminding children of classroom or household rules. However, children can become overly reliant on these rewards and may be unable to monitor or evaluate their own performance. They become totally dependent upon the rewards when attempting to evaluate their daily progress. ("I must have been good today. Mrs. Scranton gave me two stickers." Or "I must have been bad today -- no stickers.") The child is unaware of which behaviors contributed to his plethora or paucity of stickers. He has surrendered the entire self-assessment process to Mrs. Scranton. The primary warning sign of an ineffective or overused reward system is when a student asks a teacher "What will I get if I do this right?"

For most of us, our salaries constitute the extrinsic motivation for daily work. However, our desire to effectively serve our clients, students, patients, customers, or colleagues constitutes our intrinsic motivation. You would undoubtedly leave your job if the extrinsic reward (salary) was discontinued, but it is the intrinsic reward (service) that truly fosters your day-to-day motivation. Personal satisfaction for a job well done is the greatest reward.

Similarly, intrinsic motivation comes from within the child. This internal drive will inspire the child to work to her fullest potential whether or not a reward is promised. Learning becomes its own reward. Intrinsically motivated children believe in themselves and their abilities. They enjoy learning and are self-directed. They do not rely on the approval or approbation of others in order to work toward their potential.

That is not to say that rewards and incentives should not be granted to children. A well-planned and implemented reward program can be helpful in meeting short-term goals, modifying behavior, and ensuring children's cooperation, but we should remain ever mindful that intrinsic motivation is our long-term goal.

Encouraging or requiring students to set and establish individual goals for themselves can foster intrinsic motivation. Children with learning disorders often have great difficulty establishing performance goals and often aim too high ("I want to be captain of the soccer team and score three goals per game") or aim too low ("I know that I'll never get to play -- everyone is better than me"). In order to foster intrinsic motivation, it is useful to assist the child in establishing attainable and appropriate personal goals. ("I will attend and participate in all practices and will score an assist at some time during my first four games.")

Motivation Myth #4

Competition: The Great Motivator

Many educators are greatly concerned about two conflicting and mutually exclusive movements that are currently impacting the field of education. The first is the high-stakes testing movement, which emphasizes and requires intense student-on-student competition in our classrooms. The second is the inclusion movement, which emphasizes placing children with learning problems in classes with nondisabled peers. These movements are akin to oil and water: They simply do not mix.

If special needs children are going to be placed in general education classes, teachers need to downplay and decrease the use of inherently unfair competitive activities. If classrooms are going to feature intense competition, we need to remove special needs students from those environments because they become academic casualties in such a system.

Recent surveys conducted by the University of Massachusetts in suburban American school systems indicate that competitive classroom activities (games, quizzes, test, bees) occupy nearly 80 percent of the on-task time in elementary schools. It is, by far, the most widely used classroom approach. Teachers utilize competition in the belief that it motivates children to do their best. However, research and experience teach us that this belief is untrue and unfounded.

The most important and profound reality regarding the link between motivation and competition is the following: The only person motivated by competition is the person who believes that he has a chance of winning.

Therefore, if a fourth-grade teacher decides to use bees, quizzes, and games to teach spelling, who are the students that she is motivating? The good spellers. The students who are already motivated in this skill area. The struggling spellers -- the ones who would greatly benefit from increased motivation -- are not stimulated or energized by these activities.

There are several common misconceptions regarding the fragile link between motivation and competition:

  • Most people do their best work when involved in head-to-head competition with others.

This widely held belief is simply untrue. In order to demonstrate this, I often ask audiences to reflect upon one of the premier annual sporting events in the world: the Boston Marathon. Each April, Boston plays host to twenty thousand runners from across the globe who come to run the grueling twenty-six-mile course from the suburbs to historic Copley Square. These runners train intensively and participate in exhausting regimes in order to prepare for the challenging, and at times overwhelming, course. The participants come to Boston at their own expense.

Each marathoner enters the race with the full knowledge that there will be only two prizes awarded at the completion of the event. One prize goes to the man who finishes first, and the second goes to the first woman to complete the course. Twenty thousand runners...two prizes.

Reflect for a moment on this question before responding: How many of those runners enter the marathon with the hopes of winning the race? All of them? Most of them? Many of them? Some of them?

I would submit to you that only twenty or thirty world-class runners go to Boston with the expectation and hope that they will win the coveted laurel wreath. But there are twenty thousand people in the race. Who are the other 19,970 runners competing against?


We do our best work when we compete against ourselves -- not against others.

Each time I deliver a speech, my goal is not to be superior to other educational speakers such as Mel Levine, Bob Brooks, Ned Hallowell, or Reid Lyon. Rather, my goal is to deliver a better speech than the one I delivered yesterday. My goal for tomorrow's speech is that it will be better than today's. You see, I cannot control the behavior of Mel, Bob, Ned, or Reid. I can control and improve only my own behavior, so that is what I try to do.

I recall a distraught fifteen-year-old boy barging into my office at school several years ago. He was deeply shaken about his performance in that afternoon's cross-country meet. He had finished in fifth place and was greatly disappointed because he'd had a second-place finish two days before.

I attempted to comfort him by reminding him that all athletes have good days and bad days and that he should use this temporary setback to motivate himself to train even more intensely than before. However, as the discussion went further, I learned that his time in that day's race was 29:35. His time in the previous race was 31:05. Although he had a superior performance in the second race, his placement among the finishers was lower. This information changed the entire course of our discussion. I reminded him that there was only one runner's performance that he could control -- his own. He actually ran a better race when he finished in fifth place than he had run when he'd finished second. His placement was determined by variables that he could not control. By happenstance, we were competing against a superior team in the second race, and some of the boy's teammates ran unusually well that day. But again, these variables were beyond his influence. He improved his own performance and that was cause for delight, not dejection.

As educators and parents, we must downplay competition and emphasize the concept of "personal best." We should encourage students to continually strive to improve their own performance and be less mindful of comparing themselves to others. Personal Best should replace the drumbeat of The Best.

Unfortunately, most schools emphasize the best and reserve their awards, plaques, certificates, and rewards for the most-skilled students. This approach has a negative impact on the children who struggle with learning, because they never have the opportunity to "shine."

When I served as director of education at the Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut, I proposed an idea to the faculty. I purchased an oversize bulletin board and mounted it in the school's lobby. Above the board was a large banner saying Class of the Week. I explained to the staff that I would be distributing a schedule, and on a rotating basis each teacher's class would be designated as Class of the Week. On that specific week, the teacher was expected to display representative samples of her students' work on the board, thereby allowing visitors to see the type of work being done at the school. My colleagues were very enamored with my idea.

Within an hour of distributing the schedule, one of the teachers asked to see me. She was quite certain that I had made an error on the schedule because I had designated her fifth-period literature class as Class of the Week later that month. She explained that most of the students in that class were sixteen or seventeen years old, and she felt that they would feel that a bulletin board displaying their work was "baby stuff" and that they would be insulted by this primary-school approach. I did not agree and I asked her to display the students' papers on the assigned week. She dutifully -- if reluctantly -- complied and on the scheduled Monday, their papers were put on display.

The following day, I arrived at the school's lobby unusually early because I had a meeting with a parent. As I entered, I was surprised to find three of the literature students examining the bulletin board with their parents. I was running late for my meeting so I did not have time to inquire as to why the display had sparked such wide interest.

Later in the day, I met Scotty, who was one of the students I had seen in the lobby earlier that morning. I asked him why he had brought his parents to school to see the display.

This wonderful kid, who had attended a highly competitive school system before enrolling at Eagle Hill, look downward and self-consciously shuffled his feet.

"I'm sixteen years old, Mr. Lavoie," he began. "I've never had a piece of my work put up on a bulletin board before."

Scotty had attended a school that celebrated The Best. Because of his learning problems, he never wrote The Best essay on Abraham Lincoln or The Best composition about his summer vacation. He never did The Best in science, math, geography, or spelling. As a result, he attended school for ten years and never had a piece of his work displayed on a bulletin board. Pediatrician Mel Levine refers to this as "chronic success deprivation."

With all that we currently know about self-esteem, it is inexcusable that such a thing should happen to any student in any classroom. I encourage elementary school teachers to take a different and more enlightened approach. If you have twenty-five students in your class, divide your room's bulletin board into twenty-five sections so that each child is given his own section. Each Friday, allow each student to select the piece of work that he is most proud of and let him post it on his section. In this way, every child's performance is celebrated every week.

No child should be required to wait until he is sixteen years old to show his mom and dad his paper on a bulletin board. In Scotty's case, the system -- not the child -- had failed.

  • It's a big, bad world out there and we need to prepare children for the competitive adult world.

Our nephew attended a very competitive suburban elementary school and had ongoing difficulty performing academically. His parents asked that I meet with his teachers occasionally in an effort to help the teachers meet his needs. His teachers were outstanding, but invariably, each of our meetings became a debate about the intensity of the competition that the child faced daily. Each time I asked about the rationale for this constant competition, I received the same response: "We live in a competitive society and we must prepare children for the dog-eat-dog work environment that they will be joining."

There are a number of flaws in that argument. First, the boy is only nine years old! He will not be entering the "real world" for a dozen years. Isn't it a bit early to begin preparing him for the workplace by turning his fourth-grade classroom into a replica of a Wall Street boardroom?

Second, a 2003 governmental survey indicated that less than 20 percent of America's workforce is paid according to individual performance (paid on commission) and only 1 percent of workers are in situations where their continued employment is exclusively determined by their accomplishments (sales quotas). Most employment situations are not competitive in nature. In fact, if the American workplace were as competitive as America's classrooms, the result would, doubtless, be low worker morale. Most employees who lose their jobs are dismissed because of lack of motivation, poor interpersonal skills, incompetence, or cyclical economic forces. The oft-repeated warning to children that "when you grow up, you will lose your job if you can't compete" is simply false.

The keys to success in the workplace are competence, cooperativeness, and motivation -- not the ability to compete.

The third flaw in the "real world" argument is that the competition that we use in schools is totally dissimilar to the competition that the student will be facing as an adult. There are two criteria that characterize competition in the adult world. First, as an adult, you compete only when you choose to compete! I am not required or coerced to enter a golf tournament, join a tennis ladder, or apply for a new job unless I desire to do so. Second, when adults compete, they compete against peers (with similar background, training, experience, and affinities). When a principal evaluates a speech therapist, he compares her to other speech therapists in order to assess her skills. He does not expect her to be as effective a wrestling coach as his school's wrestling coach. Nor does he expect her to know Shakespeare's sonnets as well as the English teacher across the hall. When he evaluates the English teacher, he compares her with other members of the English department.

Does the daily classroom competition that my nephew confronts meet these two criteria? Certainly not! The Monday-Wednesday-Friday spelling bee ritual is not voluntary. His participation is required. Further, the bee may find him competing head-to-head with the most able speller in the class. Unlike adults, children are constantly required to compete with others who have far different skills and abilities from those they might possess.

Many sociologists posit that twenty-first-century America is not a competitive society at all. In point of fact, we may well be the most cooperative society in the history of mankind. We greatly depend upon the cooperation and collaboration of others. The simple act of driving is reflective of the cooperative spirit that characterizes our society. As you drive down the street, you trust that all the other strangers in their cars will stay in their designated lanes and will stop at stop signs and red lights. Further, they have placed the same trust in you. We cooperate with one another in order to survive on this planet.Some will argue that it is competition that is the driving force in American society and will cite the 1957 launch of the USSR's Sputnik I, which led to the space race and America's triumphant 1969 landing on the moon's surface. I disagree. Although it was the competition with the Soviets that got us involved in the space program, it was the cooperation of thousands of American scientists, researchers, legislators, designers, and industrialists who actually created that miracle. In the "real world," competition generally occurs between companies, teams, and countries, not individuals.

Competition does not ensure success or progress; cooperation does. The 2004 Boston Red Sox ended their eighty-six-year drought by winning the World Series because they collaborated so effectively that year. Successful competition relies entirely upon the cooperation that exists within the organization. The hallmark of every great human endeavor -- from the Egyptian pyramids to the NASA space station -- is cooperation. Go visit the business section of a major bookstore and you will see countless volumes related to collaboration, cooperation, and team building. Wouldn't our nephew be better served if his teachers fostered cooperation among his classmates rather than intensive and often hurtful competition? The ability to collaborate and cooperate in the workplace is one of the most admirable and valuable skills that an employee can possess. The conventional wisdom in management is that an organization greatly enhances its external competitiveness by minimizing its internal competition. If you wish to be competitive in the marketplace, you must be cooperative in the workplace.

Even if you accept the flawed premise that we live in a highly competitive world, it does not necessarily follow that children should be exposed to "doses" of competition in order to prepare them for adulthood. Following that logic would also require you to expose children to doses of liquor and pornography in order to ease their transition to adulthood.

It is important to remember that competition is a learned behavior. Most preschool children are highly cooperative. However, the competitive culture of the classroom often cancels out their natural desire to work together. I remember the response of our son Dan when I asked him about school after his first week in kindergarten:

"How's school going, Dan?"

"Pretty good, Dad. I can run faster than Zack and I can jump higher than Justin, but, boy, can Sally ever pass out napkins!"

How sad. After only fifteen hours in the classroom, he had learned that it simply did not matter how well he was doing; it only mattered how well he was doing in comparison with his classmates.

My negative attitude toward classroom competition stems from an incident with our firstborn, Christian, when he was in the first grade. I came home from work one day to be greeted by a very excited and exuberant Christian. Our conversation went like this:

"Hi, Dad! Guess what? I had a great day at school today."

"Why is that, pal?"

"Well, the teacher taught us how to carry numbers in addition today. My best friend, Jason, didn't understand it and he got a fifty on his quiz and had to stay in for recess. I got a ninety on my quiz."

Christian beamed. I was crestfallen. I never taught or expected my son to take delight in the failure of his best friend. I knew Christian to be a fiercely loyal friend and once observed him confronting a sandbox bully because the boy took Jason's toy. Where did my son learn to take delight in his buddy's failure? He learned that in school. In the classroom it was acceptable and anticipated that Christian would celebrate his friend's failure. In effect, his classmates had become obstacles to his own success.

Many teachers will argue that competition is inevitable, unavoidable, and necessary in our classrooms. Actually, every teacher does have options when planning and implementing daily lessons, and it is important that we understand the distinctions among those options.

Every classroom lesson can be placed in one of three types of categories:




In order to illustrate each, imagine that there are two fourth-grade classmates named John and Sasha. If their teacher wishes to conduct an individualized activity, she might ask John to complete a work sheet on the five times table while Sasha simultaneously completes a work sheet on the seven times table. The students work independently at their desks. The dynamic of this activity is that John's success or failure has no impact upon Sasha's success or failure. Neither does Sasha's performance impact upon John's.

Then imagine that the teacher wishes to conduct a cooperative activity. She asks John and Sasha to go to the whiteboard and draw a mural of a farm scene to celebrate National Dairy Month. She asks them to work jointly on the project. Sasha begins to draw the farm animals while John draws the farmhouse and silo. He sees that Sasha is having difficulty drawing a cow, so he volunteers his assistance by showing her how to draw the animal based on some drawing tips that his cartoonist grandfather had given him. John is eager and willing to help Sasha because, in a cooperative activity, his success is largely determined by her success. If he draws a nice farmhouse and she draws nice animals, they will have a nice mural.

In an independent activity, John's success or failure is not impacted by Sasha's performance. In a cooperative activity, John's success is largely determined by Sasha's success. In a competitive activity, John's success is largely determined by Sasha's failure. Only if she fails can he succeed.

In a competitive activity ("John and Sasha, see which one of you can alphabetize these words the fastest!"), each child hopes that the other child -- his opponent -- will do poorly. In a highly competitive classroom, the teacher creates an environment wherein each child hopes that the children next to him do poorly -- because it is in his best interests for them to do poorly.

Have you ever worked in an office, a store, a factory, or a school where workers in one department wanted workers in another department to fail? It creates the most stressful and unproductive work environment that one can imagine, and yet that is precisely the work environment that we create in competitive classrooms. We can do better.

As teachers and parents we need to place greater emphasis on individual and cooperative strategies. The former strategy allows and encourages the child to work toward his own unique tailored goals. Research indicates that failure to meet one's own goals can encourage tenacity, resilience, effort, and self-discipline. However, failure to meet imposed public goals often results in humiliation, timidity, and lowered self-esteem.

Cooperative education strategies are significantly different from the methods used in a typical classroom. In a traditional classroom children work quietly on teacher-directed activities; independence is celebrated and support comes solely from the teacher.

By contrast, a cooperative classroom features active learners working busily in small groups, where they share ideas, initiate discussions, and reinforce one another. Interdependence is celebrated. Competition is replaced by collaboration and every student's active participation is assured. Youngsters provide one another with positive feedback, support, praise, and affirmations.

Remember that all "small group work" does not necessarily qualify as cooperative learning. Teacher-directed remedial groupings, for example, do not qualify. Cooperative learning activities meet the following criteria:

  • Interdependence: Students share ideas, information, skills, and materials. Each student's success and progress is largely dependent upon the performance of his learning partners.
  • Accountability: Each student has assigned tasks that he must complete in order to ensure the success of the project. These tasks are tailored to each child's strengths, skills, and affinities. This ensures that each child is an active participant in the process.
  • Social component: Cooperative strategies promote positive social interaction among children. The children talk, plan, discuss, share, and praise.

As will be discussed in chapter 2, cooperative education activities provide students with valuable experience with group work. Students learn tolerance, patience, acceptance, and generosity in addition to the academic content. These skills are fundamental to success in postsecondary programs and in the workplace, where cooperation and teamwork are the order of the day. The communication skills learned in cooperative activities will also be useful for the child when interacting with family and friends. In addition, the success that results from active participation in cooperative activities can do much to enhance the child's confidence and self-esteem.

Cooperative learning activities can be used for myriad purposes and to meet a wide variety of academic goals. A teacher can temporarily stop a lecture or demonstration and ask cooperative groups to assemble in order to summarize, discuss, or debate the topic at hand. These groups can also discuss and solve problems, review previously learned material, prepare for tests, conduct research, or review topics.

If conducted properly, cooperative learning activities can provide the people-oriented person with invaluable opportunities to interact with others. Because all students are actively involved in these activities, the entire class benefits.

Motivation Myth #5

"Punishment is an effective motivator."

Many adults attempt to motivate children by punishing them. In most cases, this is an ineffective and short-lived solution to a motivation problem. There are several reasons why punishment simply does not work.

Many kids, particularly those who have a history of academic difficulty, have been punished enough. They are largely immune and desensitized to this approach. By the time the learning disabled child enters your fifth-grade classroom, it would be nearly impossible for you to devise a punishment that has not already been applied to him. He has lost recesses, had privileges revoked, written his transgressions ten thousand times, and stood outside the principal's office for countless hours. All of these punishments have not served to enhance his motivation, so perhaps we ought to investigate alternative approaches.

Punishment does not have a lasting impact upon a child's motivation because punishment is effective only as long as the threat of punishment exists. Suppose you are late for an important engagement and you are barreling down the highway at a speed that greatly exceeds the posted limits. As you come up over the top of a hill, you see a police cruiser parked on the shoulder a few hundred yards ahead. You immediately apply your brakes and assume the speed limit. You do not slow down because a sudden epiphany causes you to recognize your responsibility to follow the highway laws. Rather, you decrease your speed because you don't want to receive a ticket. As soon as you can no longer see the cruiser in your rearview mirror, you resume your excessive speed.

If you are a teacher or a parent who controls or "motivates" children by constantly punishing them, you must understand that they will doubtless begin to misbehave the moment you leave the room or turn your back, because the threat of punishment does not exist. They behave and perform only when you are watching. Such parents and teachers should consider granting combat pay to their babysitters and substitute teachers!

Another reason that punishment is an ineffective motivator is that children tend to associate the punishment with the punisher, not with the offending behavior. ("Mr. Stewart took away my recess today." Versus "I cursed in class today and lost my recess.") Therefore, constant punishment has a negative impact upon your relationship with a child, and a positive teacher-pupil relationship is fundamental to enhancing motivation. Of course there are times and situations when punishment is appropriate and effective. But punishment does little to motivate children toward long-term, lasting effort.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard Lavoie


Excerpted from The Motivation Breakthrough by Richard Lavoie Copyright © 2008 by Richard Lavoie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed., has worked as a teacher and headmaster at residential special education facilities for the past thirty years. He holds three degrees in special education and serves as a consultant to several agencies and organizations. The father of three adult children, he lives with his wife in Barnstable, Massachusetts. He welcomes visitors to his website at www.ricklavoie.com

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