• Rebecca Cohen

The Road to Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivators to Promote Eventual Intrinsic Motivation

Many early elementary-age children, especially those with behavioral setbacks and/or learning differences, respond positively to extrinsic motivators as they complete their work. This could mean stickers, small trinkets, breaks, and more. One of the most rewarding experiences is when a child makes the switch from extrinsic to intrinsic, when they become proud of their work because it makes them feel pleased and successful. So, how do we encourage the switch from the prize box to warm fuzzy feelings? Here are the five R’s to keep in mind when rewarding children for positive improvement:

Right Rewarding

Reward students for successes only. This could mean they solve a problem correctly, display positive independent behavior, or simply focus and persevere. Do not reward students if they act out in a negative way or display negative behavior that is not in line with their learning, such as inappropriate and/or off task comments. It is also crucial that you are specific with the reason you are rewarding students. It is much more effective to say “Awesome! I like how you wrote out every step to your math problem like we talked about,” instead of “Great job on the math problem!” This lets students know what they are doing right so they can emulate the positive behavior later on.


Make sure you are giving out reasonable rewards. Depending on the needs of the students, give small rewards (ex: stickers and mini toys) more often, or give larger rewards (ex: bigger toys and trips to restaurants or the movies) less often. Avoid giving students sugar candies in a learning environment. Sugar should be avoided during time with students due to the increased amount of energy, followed by the inevitable crash. This makes it more difficult for many students to stay focused.


If the model of consistent rewarding is ineffectual for your student, try randomizing the rewards. Students who are empowered by the unexpected may choose to stay on their best behavior for longer periods of time in hopes for an eventual reward. Sidenote: You should still follow the rules of rewarding positive moments and stick with reasonable rewards. Do not use random rewarding with a student who thrives on schedules and expected activities.

Reduce Over Time

Reward students with prizes less and less over time. While reducing extrinsic rewards, make sure that you are increasing verbal reinforcements of positive motivation. Use your best judgement to decide how quickly to reduce the rate of extrinsic rewarding. Some students will even let you know that they no longer care for the small prizes.

Relay Positivity

Throughout the entire process, make sure that you are giving verbal, positive reinforcement to students to keep them aware of their successes. When students are excited to show you work they have completed, tell them that you can see how doing a good job clearly makes them feel good about themselves. This shows students that you celebrate their successes and they should too.


Through right rewarding, reasonable rewards, randomizing rewards occasionally, reducing rewards over time, and relaying positivity, students are on the path from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Remember that students cannot all be rewarded in the same way, so choose the path that works best for the current situation. When you have these positive interactions with students, you are helping them realize the positive change in themselves when they succeed.

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