January 10, 2007 2:11am CST
HOW do you get that 16-year-old to hunker down? Ethell Geller, a behavioral psychologist, has worked with adolescents for 30 years in her Manhattan practice. Borrowing from B.F. Skinner and Pavlov, she explains motivation as a connection between expectations and consequences. Q. Where does motivation come from? A. Ideally, one goes from a very primitive type of motivation, satisfying basic drives, to an externalized form, or bribery, to the most sophisticated form, which is inherent -- working for its own sake. Human beings must develop all three types of motivation to be fully functioning, satisfied, motivated adults. Q. Why are some children stuck at Phase 2? A. Volumes have been written on the topic of motivation and social learning theory. But simply put, the extent to which children feel that their efforts lead to meaningful rewards will determine how motivated they feel. If rewards come with little effort, the child becomes spoiled. On the other extreme, if effort meets with continuous failure, the child will experience helplessness and give up. Q. What strategy do you recommend? A. First, find out why a child isn't motivated. Ask, does she really not care? Or is she afraid of something else? Or is she involved in an immediate reward system, like TV or friends, that she considers more meaningful? Or is it a self-esteem issue or another type of disability? Once the source of the problem has been identified, either therapy or behavioral management of the current reward system, or a combination of both, must be put in place. Q. Like, fewer bribes? A. Research shows that one of the best ways to motivate a child is to avoid punishment and exhibit parental approval as a reward. But what I often do when faced with children who have low self-esteem or are unmotivated is ask them to make a list of the people and their qualities that they most admire. After they come up with their lists, show them that if they work toward the salient features on that list, they can come to respect themselves and be more motivated. Reassure them that normal people who work hard can accomplish what their heroes have.