Motivation is a very important consideration in teaching, whether one is teaching in a home school setting, or in any other setting. A teacher can only teach. The student has to do the learning. If the student is not motivated to learn, the best teacher in the world can’t teach him.

As I have said elsewhere, nature is on our side in this matter. People, by their very nature, desire to know. But our children don’t always desire to know this particular math lesson, or want to unlock the treasures of this specific book. Sometimes we need to motivate them to learn, and one way to do that is to provide external rewards.

In discussing this question of motivation for children, and especially when the subject of external rewards comes up, sooner or later someone objects that we should never stoop to bribe our children. For, it is said, a student who is studying merely through fear of punishment or for some material reward isn’t learning to study for the right reasons, but only for the wrong reasons, and that therefore the habits he is learning are bad habits.

As I have said, we want our children to be motivated by a desire for knowledge itself, or by the end to which knowledge is ordered, God Himself, but my experience is that before the student gets to that point he may need to be motivated by some external goal.

This is because the goodness of the end is not yet clear to him, often because it is so difficult to achieve. I remember some of my early readers, who had to sound out every word, and who had forgotten the beginning of the sentence by the time they got to the end of the sentence. Each particular word had to be concentrated on to such a degree that the sentence as a whole had no meaning. That such a reader doesn’t love reading for its own sake is not surprising.

But, if he will persist, and practice, he will soon develop fluency, and then he can discover the joy of reading. One of the tasks of the home schooling mother is to help her students persist until they develop fluency. One way she can do that is to provide a reward that is motivating until the reward of the task itself becomes desirable.

A similar issue came up in St. Thomas’ discussion of law in the Summa (Q.92, Art.II, Obj. 4). The objection was made that “he who obeys the law merely through fear of being punished is not good; because, although a good deed may be done through servile fear, i.e. fear of punishment, it is not done well .” St. Thomas replies to this objection by saying, “From becoming accustomed to avoid evil and fulfill what is good, through fear of punishment, one is sometimes led on to do so likewise with pleasure and of one’s own accord. Accordingly, law, even by punishing, leads men on to being good.” Similarly, law, by rewarding good behavior, encourages such behavior. That’s what we are doing when we provide incentives for our children to study.

It reminds me of the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament God clearly punished his people when they strayed from His law, and He rewarded them when they were faithful. He worked with them as they were, with what Saint Thomas (Q. 107, art. 1, corpus and ad 2) calls “the law of fear” because “it induced men to observe its commandments by threatening them with penalties; and it is likewise spoken of as containing temporal promises”, and he speaks of the New Law as the “law of love” because “it is described as containing spiritual and eternal promises, which are objects of the virtues, chiefly of charity. Accordingly,” he says,” such persons are inclined of themselves to those objects, not as to something foreign, but as to something of their own.” We want to move our children from working from fear of penalties and for temporal rewards to working for spiritual and eternal goods. But you have to start where people are, and you have to have the foundations in place first.

There is a tendency to think that the way to achieve every good is simply to practice it. If you want to skate well, practice skating. If you want to cook well, practice cooking.  This is true, but you can’t practice it until there are certain foundational tools in place. If you can’t keep your balance, you won’t be able to skate well. In fact, you won’t even be able to practice skating. If you haven’t tasted the various foods, can’t read, or use measuring utensils, you can’t really practice cooking. I often say that the way to improve reading skills is by reading, but before one can do that he must know how to read.

Similarly, before one can love knowledge for its own sake, in such a way that one is willing to work hard to learn, there are certain habits of study that need to be in place. Here are some suggestions that I, or mothers I know, have used to develop those habits. We’ll start with external, material motivation. (Note: these usually work best with younger children.)

One of the mothers I work with was encountering daily resistance to math lessons. She put sticky notes with various periods of time on them scattered at random throughout the math book. One would say five minutes, another 10 and a third 30 minutes. When her son got to a lesson with a sticky note he was able to add that much time to his daily computer time. He really liked the computer, and even five more minutes of time was motivating. The technique worked. The student found that end of the book came much sooner than he had expected. He approached the text each day with a different attitude – it was a means to a goal he really wanted. And his math improved to a point where it was so much easier for him that he didn’t mind doing it anymore. The next year they didn’t need the sticky notes for math.

Another mother felt that the general attitude in her home school was deficient. She had to keep pushing the children throughout the day to do their work. She became a nag, and the children responded by being even more resistant. No one was having any fun. This mother decided it was worthwhile to try stickers. She had a classroom chart with the student’s names on it. When the student finished everything on his list, with a reasonably good attitude, he received a silver star on his chart. One month of silver stars (about 20) was rewarded with the purchase of a book. The student and his mom would go to a local bookstore and pick out a book that would then belong to the student. If he was particularly good on a given day, the mom would put a gold star on the chart. A gold star was worth two silver stars.

This mother told me that she had never had such a good year in school before. Her children were really excited about getting the stars and were willing to work for them and for the long term goal of getting the book. She said that the attitude in her children had improved not only in school, but their general attitude of cooperation had improved dramatically.

A third mother had a similar sticker technique. She had a number of children, ranging in age from 7th grade to babies. She didn’t think she would do a good job with a chart, or with anything where she had to keep track of pieces of paper. She decided instead to tell her children to bring their finished assignments to her. Each child had a clipboard for his list and when the completed assignment was brought to her, she put a sticker on his list by the assignment. The completed assignment itself went in the back of the clipboard. A sticker by the assignment indicated that it was completed. If the assignment was especially well done in some way, extra neat, for example, or done with a very cheerful attitude, or nearly perfect, then the student could have two stickers on his list for that assignment. If the assignment was done, but had been done with complaints, it didn’t receive a sticker.

Now, this mother used money as the reward. Every sticker was worth five cents. At the end of the week each child counted up the stickers, calculated the money and received his reward. He could then use his money as he wished (within reason).

One very good aspect of this technique, I think, is that there was an immediate reward (the sticker) and then a mediate reward (the money received at the end of the week) and then a long term reward (the item purchased with the money). That’s a lot of reinforcement.

As a matter of fact, the mom said that her children went from complaining daily about school to trying to do each assignment cheerfully. She was really happy with the result of her reward system.

Another mother was unhappy with the lack of virtue she saw in one, particular, younger child. It affected school work and every other aspect of life. She decided to tackle the lack of virtue directly. She also thought that stickers and charts wouldn’t work too well for her. What this mother did was use a white board. She put on the white board seven virtues to strive for: neatness, cheerfulness, obedience, charity, cooperation, promptness, and independence. Her deal with her child was that she would be willing to remind the child about the virtues three times a day. After that she wouldn’t. Each day the child received a plus or a minus next to the virtue. If there were a majority of pluses at the end of the week, the child received a reward like going to the library, or being able to ride her bike on the street for half an hour with her mom watching. If there were a majority of minuses there was some punishment, like not having any t.v. for the next week.

This worked so well for that particular child that the mother’s sister noticed the change in behavior and planned to apply the technique to one of her own children.

Now, all of these suggestions involve material rewards. They are usually quite successful with younger children. In my next article I would like to talk about using immaterial rewards, and what I have discovered is the most important component of any reward, material or immaterial.

If you haven't already, check out Part 1 and Part 3 of our Motivation: The Key to Homeschooling series!