Dr Andrew Martin, Australian psychologist and one of the country’s leading experts on student motivation, describes the key components of motivation as those that improve, those that restrict and those that reduce motivation.

He refers to those students who have a natural belief in themselves and their capacity to achieve as ‘boosters’; those who restrict their chances of success through fear of failure and avoidance as ‘mufflers’; and those who self-sabotage and believe they have little control over whether or not they succeed as ‘guzzlers’.

So, who can push the ‘boost’ button for our kids? Should they be able to do it for themselves….or do they need the support of teachers and parents to swing ‘muffling’ and ‘guzzling’ behaviour into ‘boosting’?

Some people are, by nature, motivated – they will have a go at anything and believe that they have a reasonable chance of success if they apply themselves. They value education and learning new skills; they focus on doing the best job they can; they have a belief in their own ability. In the classroom, these kids are a joy! They may not necessarily be the ‘guns’ in the class – the brightest, the highest achievers or the ‘naturals’. What they offer is maximum effort, genuine application and a positive, ‘have-a-go’ attitude.

It doesn’t mean that everything comes easy to these students – it doesn’t mean that they ‘get lucky’ or that everything ‘comes naturally’ to them. What it does mean is that they are not the ones likely to want to bask in the reflected glory of someone else’s hard work, as Dan Haesler’s article referenced last week. We don’t need to worry too much about the ‘boosters’….unless of course they tend towards over-achieving and anxiety, which opens up a whole other can of worms!

Last week, Dan claimed that “As teachers and parents we must encourage, recognise and acknowledge perseverance in our kids. Effort and perseverance – rather than ability – are what we should be praising.” Absolutely agree, but HOW do parents and teachers help push the ‘boost’ button or, better still, teach our kids to push it for themselves?

In a current education system based on Naplan results (and teaching to Naplan!), ATARs, school rankings and endless internal test results, it is so easy to lose sight of individual effort and progress. Teachers are under enormous pressure to fulfil curriculum requirements and students are under pressure to achieve – for the sake of the school, parents and themselves. Little wonder many fail to maintain the motivation to achieve across 13 years of school.

As hard as teachers try to individualise their teaching and cater to the needs of all their students, at the end of the day it becomes a case of “too much to do and too little time.”

For parents, it’s very easy to slip into the mode of comparing our kids with the ‘standard’, and overlooking the effort and progress in favour of judging our kids based on a mark written on the top left hand corner of a test paper, an essay or an assessment task. How many parents ask their kids “What did you get?” or “What did everyone else get”? or “How did your mark compare with everyone else?” More often than not, parents ask ALL THREE!

I don’t know how many times I have raised this issue with parents. “Is your child motivated to do well because he/she wants to do well; or is it because they don’t want to let you or a teacher down? Or perhaps because they don’t want to be the worst in the class?” Unfortunately, many parents admit that they immediately want to compare their child’s result with the overall class results, regardless of individual effort or improvement.

I offer this scenario: Your child/teen comes home from school with a History essay result. The score is 9/20. You ask what everyone else scored and then immediately jump up and down criticising effort and application. “You need to do better – you can’t afford to get this far behind……” The next History assignment comes and goes and the marks are in – this time the score is 12/20 – an improvement, but the class average is 13. Again, you are critical of the result. Still not good enough. “Well, it’s better than last time, but you still have a long way to go.” How do you think this makes your teen feel? Angry? Yes! Anxious? Yes! Hurt? Yes! Motivated to improve? Probably not!

Dr Martin believes that loss of motivation and failure to achieve can be due to a number of reasons  – one of them being a focus on failure rather than success. Parents, and sometimes teachers, get so caught up in what their students or kids can’t do, they forget about acknowledging what they can. Parents breathe a sigh of relief when their kids don’t get a bad report, don’t get into trouble, don’t fail their exams…..sometimes they forget to acknowledge the good stuff.

In the case of our scenario, what might have been a better outcome? What might be a trigger to inspire this particular teen to continue improving? Instead of suggesting that 12/20 is still “not good enough”, try acknowledging the three marks improvement – obviously any improvement requires effort. Praise the improvement and effort – ask what they think about their mark. Let them take ownership and at least some glory for the improvement. Focus on what they have done, rather than what still needs to be done.  Obviously this student knows there is still some work to be done – but at least acknowledge the effort it has taken to see a three mark improvement.

It’s a matter of learning (and teaching) new habits. Start building success into your students’ or kids’ lives. Challenge their negative thinking. Recognise their strengths and acknowledge their improvement. Focus on what they CAN do, rather than what they can’t.

If we don’t want our kids to be onlookers in life and basking in the reflected glory of others, we need to challenge our own beliefs about what our kids are realistically capable of achieving, and guiding them towards understanding and believing in themselves enough to ‘go for it’ on their own.


High Hopes Educational Services