Posted in Eleanor Cawley, M.S., OTR/L

That Dreaded Word ‘Motivation!’

Lately, I have been seeing a rash of IEPs in a number of school districts with the phrase, “the student lacks the motivation to….” Every time I see this phrase in an IEP it really blows my mind! As an occupational therapist, I know that there are many factors to becoming motivated to complete any task. described motivation and it just happened to include a statement about students and studying which really hit home.

What is motivation? Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal. Motivation results from the interaction of both conscious and unconscious factors such as the (1) intensity of desire or need, (2) incentive or reward value of the goal, and (3) expectations of the individual and of his or her peers. These factors are the reasons one has for behaving a certain way. An example is a student that spends extra time studying for a test because he or she wants a better grade in the class

When I read this statement, the first thing that I thought was “Why doesn’t the student want better grades?”  What turned the student off of studying or what was never turned on?  What comes to my mind is the “Just Right Challenge.”  I really like Linda Harrison’s description of the Just Right Challenge in her blog on Daily Living Skills:

A just-right challenge is a very careful balance between the challenge of the task and the skills of the person.  If the challenge of a task is too high and the skills of a person are too low, frustration is usually the result.  If the challenge of a task is too low and the skills of the person are too high, boredom is usually the result.  However, if the challenge of the task is equal to the skills of the person, he or she will experience a state of “flow” which is a motivating, engaging, and positive experience.

There are many factors that lead up to motivation for an activity.  Why would a student become proficient in video games and not studying from notes or a book?  We need to look at all the intrinsic and extrinsic factors for both activities.  What is different and what is the same? One factor that comes to my mind is the reinforcement factors.  Reinforcement from a video game is both positive and negative and it is always consistent.  Feedback for studying can be quite variable.  What components of studying are difficult for a student?  Reading, short/long term memory, spelling, handwriting, etc.  A student can have difficulty in one or more of these areas leading to studying that can be ineffective.  Failing a test or a poor grade on a written assignment can have devastating effects on a student’s self-esteem.  Parents may say that a child did not study hard enough or a teacher may say “You can do better!” Then comes the IEP or the report card and it says, “The student is not motivated to achieve.”  OUCH! OUCH! OUCH!  It might be better to say that the student is having difficulty with…  At least, having identified one or more areas, we have something that we can do to support the student.

I want to make absolutely clear that this is a team effort that needs to be addressed and not one that is the sole effort of the teachers, therapists or parents.  Everyone involved with the student needs to be on the same page and take ownership of their own contribution.

Even if a student fails a test, can you say something positive?  For example, “I see that all the work you have been doing on incorporating the rules of spelling has paid off!  I am impressed.”  Maybe the grade was not so good but look at the effort that the student is putting in and it is beginning to show. Don’t belittle the effort and don’t over reinforce either. The idea is to focus on the positives and the efforts the student has made to turn the negatives around.  I try never to use the word “but” when providing positive feedback.  The “but” says “But I still failed.”  This is the time to reinforce the effort and write that on the top of the page so that the parent also knows what to reinforce.  I like to use the phrase, “Just the Right Challenge” when discussing doubts with the student.  Explain that we are searching for that “Just the Right Challenge” that will help the student focus on the skills that need work.  Involve the student in the grading process by using a rubric or even just a simple checklist.  I very often use rubrics to involved students because even a small increase [from 1 to 2 or 2 to 3] in a score can mean so much. Rubrics can show those small amounts of progress that a student has made and can understand. We can then modify a rubric to focus on areas of need.

Abraham Maslow created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Based on this hierarchy, in order for us to achieve Self-Actualization [morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts] we need Esteem [self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others and respect by others], in addition to being loved and having a sense of belonging, feeling safe and having our physiological needs met. Motivation is accomplished when we have our own hierarchy of needs met.

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I am an occupational therapist with 18 years of experience in the pediatric sector, much of that time as an independent contractor. I am very passionate about my work and my writing. My degrees include a Bachelor’s of Science in Health Sciences and a Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy from Touro College. Since graduating as a non-traditional student, I have worked in a variety of settings throughout the life span but settled in the area of school-based therapy. My interests lie in the area of using technology to support independence and I often train students to use programming not only to monitor their own goal progress but also support educational, vocational and life skills. Another area of particular interest is documentation. As an independent contractor for many years, I feel that it is important to align methods of documenting goal progress with educators for greater consistency and understanding when writing for an IEP. It is better to plan a format for documentation used in the IEP, such as for assessment and goal progress and that a rubric, in many ways, fulfills the need for consistency in documentation across all domains. Combining my interest in technology and documentation, I use Microsoft OneNote to maintain all documentation. I create a digital notebook for each student or patient with any forms required uploaded as templates which can then be completed, and saved automatically. I strongly believe in student centered approach to therapy. Students must be active participants in developing goals and documenting progress. In order to help students understand their progress, I teach my students to develop electronic portfolios and to use spreadsheet programming with graphs to collect data and view progress, whenever possible.

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