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Teach, Reinforce, Repeat

How to Move Beyond Teaching to Internalizing Motivation

· Executive Function

On your journey towards executive functioning mastery, you established specific behaviors you want to see your child perform without your assistance. You overhauled your own organizational system and ensured that the external structures of your child’s daily life at home promote the greatest level of success for everyone. You even committed to holding them responsible for specific tasks that lead to these behaviors.

Last month we established four core principles:

1. Every experience is a learning experience.

2. Success is not a requirement and is often a hinderance to growth.

3. Every roadblock is an opportunity to devise an alternate route.

4. Mild discomfort is a necessary fuel to persist.

In our example of a teenager remembering to bring home her homework, being prepared for school, and handing in her materials, we introduced the idea of establishing an aversive as a back up plan for when all positive reinforcement and structured systems fail. In our example, our parent had it easy- her daughter was motivated by screen time. Removal of screen time for failure to meet the three daily expectations was the established aversive and the parent in the scenario was committed to consistency.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of our kids had clear-cut, easily observable motivators? If you are like most parents of teenagers, or even a gifted five year old, you are well aware that motivations not only change with the wind, they also change the second you make a move to use them as an aversive. It seems impossible. It’s not.

The first step to solving the motivation mystery: re-read the four core principles.

The second step: join me in a crash course on motivation.

What is motivation?

To our friendly family psychologists, motivation is defined as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors.

In parent terms: motivation is what we rely on in order to act, whether it is getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or reading a book to gain knowledge (Cherry, K., VeryWell 2016). Essentially, motivation can be summarized as the “why” behind everything we do.

There are several components to motivation:

First, there is activation, best described as the decision that is made to begin or initiate a behavior. For instance, when you make the decision to begin your homework after dinner, you are engaging in activation.

Next, there’s persistence. Persistence is the continued effort we use to move towards an established goal despite obstacles. An example of persistence would be continuing to work on homework regardless of feeling tired, the assignment taking longer than expected, or you not recalling from class how to exactly complete the problems.

Last, motivation involves intensity, which is described as the concentration and vigor that goes into pursuing a goal. For example, you may be in class with one person who manages to get through each week’s work without a great deal of effort, yet you study frequently, attend after school test-prep sessions, and put in an extra hour or two on writing assignments. In this example, the first student lacks intensity, while you are pursuing your education goals with greater intensity.

Yet, before we sit our children down to tell them we would like to see greater degrees of activation, persistence, and intensity while they pursue their goals, we must first grapple with their drive. Each of us has an established drive in some form or another which is moving us towards, or sometime, farther away from a goal. To understand how drive (motivation) is established in the first place, lets break it down through a closer look at Drive Theory. In this theory (there are several, but we will be working with just this one as it most relates to the process of learning and internalizing motivation), suggests:

We all have needs, and those needs lead to internal stimuli prodding us into action, driving us to reduce those stimuli by satisfying the relevant needs. These drives are necessary, otherwise needs would not be satisfied. Through the satisfaction of needs, we learn through responses (satisfaction) and therefore repeat that action in the future in order to get the same response (think Pavlov’s drooling dogs). There are primary drives, which are those related to basic survival, and secondary drives,or the drives related to social and identity factors. As we act to satisfy needs we become conditioned and acquire habits and other unconscious forms of response or reaction. Behavior is changed only if habits no longer satisfy needs, without needs being satisfied, the drive remains.

For example, you find yourself stranded and you wander into a strange house. You look for food to satisfy your hunger. You find food in a refrigerator in the garage. Therefore, when you become hungry and move on to find more food, when you enter the next house, the first place you look is in the garage.

Why does this help your child develop executive functioning skills?

If you are able to determine what drives someone, you can stimulate their drives in order to move them towards action. Even better, if you can get your child to tap into understanding what drives them, they can begin to stimulate their own drives in order to move towards action.

The trick: ensuring that you motive the drive in such a way that you see a favorable response.

Motivations are usually not tangible. Discovering your child’s motivation will take little more than some reflection on their actions and some logical thinking about human behavior.

Your mission, then, is to determine your child’s drive. If they are older and open to conversations about developing and maintaining EF skills, they can help you make that determination (and this is the preferred route considering our children are not dogs, but are emotional beings who have opinions and feelings about their own behaviors and direction of their lives. Reducing their future selves down to action-response and reinforcement techniques is, well, a devaluation of their personhood).

Things to look for are natural habits and routines: When I get home I always… After school the first thing I want to do is… I feel the most successful, happy, content, calm when…

Find the drive and then pair that with the behavior you want to see- for instance, if your child finds that the first thing they are inclined to do after a long day of school is to head out with friends (they are driven by social interactions), then pair the desired EF skill (lets say in this case having written assignments in their agenda book) with the drive. The desired behavior will need to occur BEFORE the drive for friend-time can occur. Either a check-out with a teacher at school to ensure all assignments are written down, or a stop home to have a parent look everything over prior to heading out for ice cream. Likewise, if assignments are not written in the assignment book, then the completion of that task prior to friend-time must occur (the aversive).

In this scenario you are creating desired outcomes by pairing them with already occurring drives and then building in a non-arbitrary aversive associated with the completion of the desired behavior as well as eventual fulfillment of the drive.

Next month we will continue to provide examples of drive and pairing already occurring drives with desired outcomes as a means of increasing motivation and therefore maintaining established skills. In the meantime- have that conversation with your child about their drives, link them to desired outcomes and build in an aversive. Give it a try.

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