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Ever wish your students were more motivated? If you’re like most of us, you have tried an array of rewards and punishments to motivate kids. There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work. At least it doesn't work well enough. People (yes, even students) aren’t motivated from the outside so rewards and punishments only work to a point. We are internally motivated. That’s why it's essential to engage and inspire students to be motivated to succeed in school (and life.)

If you’re ready to move beyond the reward/punishment model and embrace a whole new way to understand motivation, I encourage you to come back regularly. It’s time to challenge the status quo and create schools and classrooms based on what really motivates behavior.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Goals: The Importance of Attainable Wants

In “Quality World Pictures: The Importance of Flexibility,” I discussed what can happen when quality world pictures are too rigidly defined. But what about students who have goals that are both laudable and beyond their current capacity? You may hear this referred to an the “unrealistic want.” I try to avoid that term because I am reluctant to identify another person’s want as “unrealistic.” I can’t count the number of times students (and other human beings) experienced success even though I might have identified their goal as “unrealistic.” That’s the power of internal motivation. When people are adequately motivated, they frequently amaze us with their success.

Still, what’s a teacher to do when faced with  students who create grandiose goals that have little chance of being achieved, at least in the immediate future? Certainly, we don’t want to discourage student enthusiasm. At the same time, encouraging students when we see a high likelihood of failure seems both cruel and unprofessional.

It’s not unusual for students to create lofty goals and make promises they are unlikely to keep, like “I’ll never miss another homework assignment for the rest of the year,” even though this same student has turned in less than 20% of the assignments so far! This is particularly common with students who are struggling. Why? Remember that we are always motivated by what we want at that moment. A struggling student working with a caring teacher is driven to please them and connect with them. They are primarily interested in figuring out what they can say and do that will help them connect positively with their teacher at that moment. Even if what they say represents something beyond their capacity, that’s a problem for another day. Right now, they are driven to connect with their teacher so they tell them they will do everything possible to magically morph into an ideal student.

Here’s the rub: teachers listening to a student promise to complete all assignments, do their best, achieve excellence, etc are hearing something that matches their quality world picture. It’s only logical for teachers to encourage and support the student because it represents what the teacher wants.

After this momentary feel-good moment, reality sets in and teachers are all too familiar with students who fail to live up to the promises they made. Contrary to popular belief, this is usually not a case of a student “playing you” or being manipulative. It is related to one of the needs that drive all people: the need for competence. Students who struggle and then make promises that are nearly impossible to keep feel overwhelmed and miserable. Rather than facing their pain directly, many defend themselves by abdicating responsibility. Put simply, it’s less painful to be thought of as a lazy, irresponsible student than to be perceived as incompetent. How often have you heard struggling students defend themselves with comments like, “This is stupid. I could do it if I wanted to. It’s just lame.”

To break this cycle, teachers can help kids set realistic, attainable goals and make reasonable plans that have a good chance of being successful. When kids come to you with grandiose plans, you don’t have to shoot them down, but you can ratchet things down a notch by identifying an interim goal that gets them moving in a positive direction rather than repeating the cycle of failure they have already mastered.

We are driven by what we want at that moment. When a student creates a goal and plan that you think is doomed to failure, remember that they are driven to connect with you, to please you, to be OK with you. Help them realize that they can attain what they want by simply moving in a positive direction, creating realistic goals, and developing reasonable plans. This helps them gradually (but effectively) transition from a failure identity to a success identity. Over time, they will develop the capacity to satisfy their need to connect as well as their need for competence by experiencing more academic success.

Goals. Quality World pictures. We need them. But it’s crucial that we create attainable goals to sustain the motivation necessary to achieve lasting success.


As always, if you enjoyed this and found it useful, please send the link to your friends. Thanks.

Bob Sullo
PO Box 1336
Sandwich, MA 02563

For information about books by Bob Sullo and to schedule a keynote, workshop, or series for your school, agency, or parent group visit

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