Motivation can be thought of as a driving force of behavior. It is common to talk about motivation as a hidden force inside the person.In behavior analysis, motivation is the result of the organism’s biological state, previous history of reinforcement and punishment, and how these interact with the current stimuli in an individual’s environment. We define motivation, or rather, a motivational operation as an environmental variable that increases or decreases (a) the effectiveness of a reinforcer; and (b) the current frequency of all behavior that were previously reinforced by that reinforcer. Motivation has effects on both the acquisition of new skills and the current frequency of already acquired skills. Increasing motivation will increase both learning and performance, while decreasing motivation will decrease both learning and performance.

Ultimately, the two most common questions pertaining to motivation are:

  • Why is my child not motivated to do things I want them to do?
  • Why is my child motivated to do things that I don’t want them to do?

In this blog we will examine the first of these questions. Stay tuned for my next blog in which we will examine the second.

Why is my child not motivated to do things I want them to do?

If your child is not motivated to do the things that you want them to do, motivation probably needs to be strengthened. Below are several ways to increase motivation:

  • Limiting access to reinforcers – No matter what age, kids are always going to have items, activities, and special privileges that they want and have access to. Limiting access to these reinforcers until the child engages in the desired behavior is a simple procedure to increase motivation. Essentially, your child EARNS the privilege when they complete the tasks that are required of them. If your child receives services (ABA, speech, OT, etc.), you can also increase motivation and therefore learning and performance in these environments by communicating with your service providers and determining which reinforcers should be restricted and saved for use during these therapy sessions.


  • Timing of reinforcer delivery – When it comes to reinforcer delivery for most children, soon is not soon enough. The most powerful reinforcers are those delivered immediately following the desired behavior or performance. If they have to do their homework to watch television, then earning television right after homework is much better than having to wait until after dinner (unless the favorite show is on after dinner, of course). In a case like this, when the reinforcer cannot be delivered until later, using a tangible such as a colorful ticket or certificate stating what the child has earned and when it will be delivered can help to reinforce the behavior immediately.


  • Increasing opportunities – The biggest failure to capture motivation is often when a child is given too much of the reinforcer for the desired performance. Just remember that practice really does make perfect. One example is when teaching a child to request banana. If the entire banana is given following the request, “banana,” many opportunities have been lost. Instead, cut the banana up into small bites, and have the child request each individual bite. This way, your child’s desire for the banana will stay strong and many more opportunities to learn “banana” can occur.


  • Praise and attention – So how does praise and attention function to motivate our children to behavior desirably? For most of us, praise and attention are valuable because they have been instrumental in getting our needs and wants met. Therefore, attention and praise have been paired with access to reinforcers. The best way to increase praise and attention as effective reinforcers is to regularly provide your praise and attention, then immediately provide the desired backup reinforcer (i.e. hand over the Ipad®). Doing this regularly will increase your child’s desire for this “good” attention and will therefore increase motivation to behave in ways that have resulted in it in the past.

Capturing motivation can even be difficult for seasoned professionals. This can be especially difficult if your child has developmental delays or another disability. Also, as children approach the teenage years you may find that others appear to be much more motivating than you. The previous four strategies will provide a good start to increase your child’s motivation to engage in those behaviors that we want them to do. In part two, we will discuss how to decrease motivation when a child is motivated to do those things that we don’t want them to do.

Need help figuring out if it’s the difficulty of the task or level of motivation that is slowing learning and performance? Please feel free to contact us directly at

Published On: October 4th, 2013 / Categories: Blog /

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