Children have a natural love for learning. As young toddlers, they learn to crawl and walk without external motivators. Certainly they like encouragement, but the natural desire to progress is already a part of their innate programming. Children do not need to be bribed or threatened into learning. What they need, especially children with traumatic histories (who we'll call "Billy" in this article), is to be supported, guided, and scaffolded up within an environment that is conducive to feeling emotionally safe, developing relationship, and feeling respected.
The typical behavioral techniques most schools use to try to motivate students can be barriers and hindrances to the Billys of the classroom because they create fear. Any technique based in fear is only going to elevate more fear for a student like Billy who already lives in fear. These techniques are illusions of control and motivation. The reality is that when fear is a part of the learning environment for a student like Billy, learning stops. What subsequently follows is exactly what these external motivators were intended to eliminate: negative behaviors.
Motivation is more about regulation than about simply making a choice to succeed and follow the rules. Motivators we see used in schools, such as stickers and rewards, address the area of the brain that is shut down for Billy. To think clearly and to sequentially rationalize that "if I behave, then I will have a prize from the treasure box" takes the work of the neocortex (the logical thinking part of the brain).
For Billy, when he is struggling and dysregulated, this part of the brain ceases to fire. The problem exists in the lower area of the brain for Billy (the Reptilian Brain). That is why Billy’s thinking is going to be different than the typical student (who we'll refer to as "Andy"). This is especially true for Billy because Billy has a deep-seated negative belief system saying that he is stupid, the world is unsafe, and he has to do whatever it takes to make things work for himself (see below).
In the lower part of the brain for all of us, life happens in the next fifteen seconds. Consequences are not relevant. Morals, ethics, and the differences between "right and wrong" have no bearing. All of these guiding forces reside in the neocortex, an area of the brain no longer "in charge" when Billy is dysregulated.
When Billy is left to his own devices to regulate, all his internal resources and energy are already used for protection and safety, leaving no room for learning. The more Billy falls behind academically, the more he feels threatened and the less he learns. Hence, the negative and endless spiral begins with no way out when traditional approaches are put into place. Unfortunately, the only way out of this downward spiral for many students is to ultimately quit and drop out of school.
It takes a shifting our understanding of motivation from a behavioral perspective to a relationship-based regulatory perspective to interrupt a student's negative spiral downward. Many of the traditional techniques need only be modified slightly and delivered in the spirit of love and connection rather than in the framework of fear and control. It is a small shift yet one that can have a powerful impact on students.
It requires interactive regulation (through relationship) to calm Billy down, to create safety for Billy, and to decrease his anxiety. It takes switching from the strategy of getting students motivated--with the promise of a reward or the threat of the loss of a privilege--to the strategy that taps into the student's neurobiological predisposition for relationship.
For more extensive "real-life-how-to" strategies, read my latest book, Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom. With a trauma-informed classroom, let's help return our "Billys" of the world back to their natural love for learning!
|Heather T. Forbes, LCSW|
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.