A few summers ago, I visited the Greek island of Santorini. The beautiful villages on this island are located on top of 200-metre high cliffs, which look over the Mediterranean Sea. The only way to get up to these villages is to sit on the back of a well-trained donkey as it slowly climbs up the narrow, winding paths to the top of the cliff. These patient donkeys climb up and down the cliff 20-30 times a day, and they never seem tired, bored, or unwilling to do so. The entire community rely on these donkeys, and the donkeys never let them down. But how are they so well trained? Is it because their owners use canes or whips? Is it because they know that they will be punished if they do not climb?
The reason that the donkeys are so happy to climb up and down the steep, narrow tracks, is that every time they make it to the top, they get a treat. The donkey trainers of Santorini have been leading donkeys up and down cliffs for hundreds of years and they know the secret that so many other people do not: donkeys respond better to treats than to threats. They work harder when offered carrots than when threatened with the cane.
But what does this have to do with education?
I don’t mean to be rude when I say, students are a lot like donkeys. They respond far better to the carrot than to the cane. Unfortunately, too often, in schools and at homes, teachers and parents try to use negative reinforcement to motivate students:
“Do your homework or you will get detention!”
“If you do not get an A+, I will be very disappointed in you!”
“If you don’t work hard this year, you will have to work at McDonald’s for the rest of your life!”
Does this sound familiar? The problem with this approach is simple: it doesn’t work. When faced with negative reinforcement, students (and donkeys too) feel confused, stressed and unhappy. They are likely to associate schoolwork with negative feelings and they will focus on not getting punished, as opposed to focusing on actually improving their academic performance.
So, what are the other options?
Many studies have shown that the clever use of positive reinforcement is the best way to motivate students. Here are some great ways that you can use positive reinforcement to motivate your child today…
1. Set a positive tone.
Before encouraging your child to begin their homework, try to get them feeling good about their education. Praise them on their past achievements, recognise their talents, and express an interest in the areas that they are studying.
“I’m very proud of you for getting a good mark on that quiz last week.”
“You should enjoy this homework task, you have a great imagination.”
“I can’t wait to read your story when you’re finished.”
At Spectrum Tuition, we like to start each class with a fun, engaging activity, which encourages the students to take an interest in the week’s content.
2. Be vigilant in your positive reinforcement
Students often become unmotivated if they feel as if their hard work is going unnoticed by parents, tutors or teachers. When it comes down to it, all children want to make their parents proud, and they always work harder if they know that you will notice. The problem is, parents and tutors tend to be more consistent in their negative feedback than in their positive feedback; we’re more likely to notice bad behaviour than good behaviour. Make sure you notice when your child is working particularly hard, or doing particularly well, and commend them for it.
3. Talk specifically about your mutual goals, aims and expectations
Talk to your child about what goals they want to achieve. Do they want to get a particular ATAR score, or get into a particular course? Do they want to get a scholarship so that they can attend their preferred school? Do they want to get better at expressing themselves? Do they want to feel less confused during maths class? Talk about ways in which you can work together towards these goals. Discuss fair expectations regarding homework and study times and make sure to write these down. At Spectrum Tuition, we start each term by forming a set of “Class Rules and Expectations” with our students. What we find is that, if students participate directly into setting their own goals, rules and expectations, they are far more likely to follow them.
3. Set achievable goals and fair rewards
Does your child want to get an ATAR score of 95? This is what we call a “big goal.” Often, “big goals” can be intimidating, as students don’t know where to start. Encourage your child to break down their larger goals into smaller, more manageable goals. It is a good idea to have a list of smaller “Goals of the Week” or “Goals of the Month,” such as working on assignments, practising spelling, completing all homework, etc. You can make this process more fun by offering a reward if your child achieves all of their goals for the month. Rewards can be anything: a day at the beach, a trip to the movies or Luna park, a new book. Make sure you specify in advance exactly what the reward will be and what your child must do to deserve it. At the end of each month, your child will feel proud and happy that they have accomplished their goals and earned their reward.
So remember, use the carrot over the cane. Whilst threats of punishment, groundings, loss of pocket money or guilt may motivate students in the short term, positive reinforcement is ultimately the best method for encouraging your child to achieve their goals.
What effective methods have you used to motivate your children?
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