How to Build Intrinsic Motivation in Students

Teachers are some of the most creative people in the world. They come up with the most inventive, engaging, and exciting lessons, classrooms, and more. Cute and fun behavior management and reward systems are no exception. Teachers come up with adorable charts, token systems, prizes, and even the latest trend… Desk Pets. There is no doubt that these reward systems are super creative, fun, and motivating for students. But are they necessary? Are they what is BEST for students? In this post, I talk about the levels of motivation and share ideas and strategies for how to build intrinsic motivation in students.

Do ‘Cute’ Reward Systems Work?

In most cases, I believe these reward systems are not only additional work and money for a teacher, but they are also detrimental to students long-term. Reward systems can be detrimental because they can erode students’ higher-level motivation. As teachers, our long-term goal should be focused on helping our students succeed beyond their school year with us. We need to give them tools to build on to make them successful throughout life. Therefore, we should be engraining motivation well beyond token reward systems.

We should be teaching our students about the intrinsic motivation that comes within themselves. We should have discussions, model, and reinforce the reason we make choices throughout our daily lives. Those choices should not usually be to get a reward but for our overall benefit as an individual and, beyond, for the overall benefit of everyone.

There are Six Levels of Motivation

Level 1 – Fear.

I don’t want to get in trouble. Many parents and teachers use this level of motivation to get a result. “I will call your parents if you do that one more time.” This teaches children to fear anger and power.

Level 2 – I want a reward.

In this stage, children learn about positive rewards they may get if they display a certain behavior. “If you stay on green, you will get a prize.” According to NYT best-selling author Daniel Pink, rewards decrease motivation and productivity in cognitive functions.

Level 3 – I want to please someone.

Students are motivated to act a certain way to please their teacher or caregiver because it makes them feel good. “I love it when you listen so nicely.” This teaches children that they should work to please others.

Level 4: I want to follow the rules.

Students know the rules and understand why they are important. Often, teachers have students help them create the classroom rules. This is not a bad place to be. But we can still push our students to be better thinkers! Rules do not always need to be followed and should change and adapt.

Level 5: I am considerate of others.

Students make decisions while keeping in mind how they impact others. This stage is rare for both children and adults but can be achieved. Children learn empathy.

Level 6: I have a personal code of behavior that I follow.

In this stage, the person has a personal code of behavior inside themselves. They have a true moral ground for their beliefs. This stage is very difficult to attain and nearly impossible to model. The best place to display this level of motivation is through stories of others in books, movies, and history.


six levels of motivation showing how students perform best under intrinsic motivation

So how can we build higher levels of motivation in students?

It is not easy to build intrinsic motivation in students! It is something you will have to work on all year and beyond. But here are some ways you can help reinforce this mindset.

Ongoing Support

Have regular discussions with your students about choices and their impact. Reinforce the idea that our choices impact our lives and those around us. When we make choices, we should do so for our best good and the good of those around us. You can do this during a morning meeting or at other times during the day.

Model Higher Level Motivation

Model behavior that shows making choices. Explain to students how your choices impact you and those around you.

Use Examples of Intrinsic Motivation

Read stories that incorporate character education and the highest level of motivation. Learn about characters and how their choices impact them and those around them. Learn about important figures throughout history that display these qualities.

Teaching Skills that Last a Lifetime

Teaching students about intrinsic motivation will help them throughout their lives. Modeling and discussing intrinsic motivation will be much more effective (and less time and money) than classroom reward systems, which can have a negative impact long term.

If you’re looking for more opportunities for building character with your students, check out my strategies for How to Build a Strong Classroom Community with Morning Meetings.

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We strive to empower teachers and promote student success. We create skill-focused resources that promote critical thinking, enhance student engagement, and incorporate diversity. Our goal is to develop the tools teachers need to reach their students and foster a lifetime of learning.

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