© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

The most enduring source of motivation is an expectation of being able to do it – whatever it is that one wants or intends to do.

All of us have some area, or perhaps many areas where we feel pretty good about our abilities.  In these areas, we tend to have the most confidence, interest, and ability to get what we want out them.

We also have areas where we lack confidence in our abilities.  In these areas, it’s more difficult to find motivation to get started or stay with them.

  • One possible answer to a motivation problem is to offer something else – something valuable enough to the person that he or she would be willing to work or sacrifice another type of reward in order to obtain it.
  • Another possible answer to a motivation problem is to follow the person’s lead, and somehow incorporate his or her natural interests in whatever you do together.

An entirely different way of looking at motivation is to look at it as coming from these sources:

Durable motivation comes trying to do things that are difficult, and yet results were obtained from one’s own, persistent effort.  A naturally motivated person usually…

    • anticipates that effort will produce positive results
    • expects that trying involves error as well as some negative feelings such as disappointment or frustration that are manageable
    • believes that persistence and the availability of help and support will pay off
  • The word “resilient” is another way of describing naturally motivated people, because natural motivation is impossible without resilience.  A resilient person is someone that …
    • responds to failures, setbacks, and other types of breakdowns by trying harder or trying differently
    • has a way of dealing with inevitable negative feelings and is confident he or she can manage them
    • works interdependently and independently in equally healthy and appropriate ways

When Motivation (Lack of Resilience) is a problem

Motivation can be a problem when there is too little of it in everyday life or, when motivation for other things interferes somehow with daily life.

Positive Reinforcers and Positive Reinforcement

The most common suggestion for motivation problems is to use a process called  “positive reinforcement.”   The word “positive” in “positive reinforcement” doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good…

In this manner of speaking, “positive” really means that whatever it is, it is now added to the environment or to the consequences of behavior.  Whatever is added should have the effect of making a desired behavior more likely to happen.  A “positive reinforcer” is simply something you add that will make some behavior more likely to happen.

“Positive Reinforcers” are those things that we add to “the environment,” to provide motivation that a person cannot yet attain from internal sources or from events occurring naturally in the environment.

There is nothing wrong with using positive reinforcement as a temporary compensation for a lack of motivation, but it is never a good idea to use it in place of natural forms of reinforcement – those that can be found in the environments where the skills are needed.

We therefore exercise caution in using positive reinforcement because we are aware that:

  • The misuse of positive reinforcement techniques can lead to dependence on external and unnatural forms of reinforcement and ultimately – burnout.
  • The primary use of positive reinforcement puts the focus on “getting the right answer” and earning rewards, rather than finding the reward in discovering an answer
  • When success with positive reinforcement deprives a person of opportunities to become resilient – in other words, opportunities to try and to learn from making mistakes

Following the Child’s Lead

In some very important ways – we always follow the persons lead.  As parents, caring adults and other forms of Guides, we have to be attuned to those we care about.  We may have rules and expectations and we’re trying to be consistent, but we always must pay attention to the person – not just the behaviors.  Following a person’s interests and natural motivations can provide rich opportunities for learning and sharing moments in ways that are very meaningful to them.  Following someone’s lead can help them feel appreciated and understood by us.  This creates opportunities to bond in ways that not only can provide powerful motivation, but also a depth of personal bond perhaps not possible in any other way.

We therefore exercise caution in following the child’s lead because we are aware that:

  • It represents an attempt to use the person’s favorite things or activities as incentives.  By making access to one’s favorite things now dependent upon doing things he or she didn’t have to do before, the person might view this as confrontational – as actually taking something away.  Further, when it is done this way, the child typically “accesses” his “reinforcer” alone.  Being able to engage in the activity is associated with being able to do it alone.  Being alone may be the best part, or it may be strongly connected to what is really rewarding in such a scenario.
  • Follow the child’s lead means an absence of challenge and a presence of static, stagnation.  In order to be included in all aspects of citizenry, one should be not only flexible, but able to take part in things that interest others.

We may start by strongly following your lead – but we cannot remain there.  Instead, we might choose to follow your lead, but we will also add regular breakdowns and therefore opportunities to solve problems and think dynamically.  We will challenge you with variations and new wrinkles that require you to share control and to expect change rather than predictability.

Guided Participation

Guided participation or mindful parenting is a way that you can teach just about any type of skill within the context of a natural activity.

Being a Guide

Guides are just people that have the ability and the motivation to teach someone else something.   If they are good Guides, they teach a person how to learn, not just what to learn or whether it is right or wrong.

Parents, Teachers, and other more experienced persons that cared for us engaged us in many different activities of life.  We learned from watching them and doing things with them.  But most importantly, we learned that it was important to watch them.  We learned by watching them even when they weren’t trying to teach us something.  From that initial teaching of how lo learn, we learned to learn even more from watching everyone else. Because we learned how to learn, we continue to learn from not only making mistakes and discovering successes, but also by watching what works or doesn’t work  for others.

Guided Participation is the natural way of parenting for our species.  But it can also break down.  A history of lack of motivation and successful avoidance can make guiding or even participating in natural family routines and community activities together daunting if not impossible right now.

Ultimately, what is most important is restoring your ability to use Guided Participation whenever and wherever you want.  In your role as Guide, the choice for dealing with problems with motivation is up to you.  Any of the above strategies can and do work in the right circumstances and hopefully for the right reasons.  We want you to be able to choose or refuse to use positive reinforcement or child lead.  We hope to able to help you learn how to make the decision.

Read more about Guided Participation Teaching…