3 Things You Can Do to Actually Motivate Youth and Teens 

ClubX Blog superstar Erica Warren is here today with the content you need to keep teens moving towards their goals!

What motivates youth? Sometimes they seem so caught up in their social lives and social media that it seems impossible to motivate them. But youth aren’t actually lacking in motivation, they may simply be motivated to accomplish different goals than the ones we have for them. Three things are true about motivation: (1) motivation makes a huge difference, (2) motivating someone to do something they aren’t currently motivated to do is hard, and (3) the way we think about motivation is often wrong.  In this post, I’m going to share some of the biggest motivation myths and give 3 things you can actually do to motivate youth and teens. 

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Motivation Myth #1: Youth are just not motivated to do anything! 

Truth: This might be a tough one to digest, but we are all motivated to do things, even things that aren’t good for us. For example, if a teen keeps texting under the table during homework time, they may not feel motivated to complete their homework now, but they are – for one reason or another – motivated to communicate on their phone. Whatever the youth in your Club are doing, they are motivated to do it—either intrinsically or extrinsically (we’ll talk about that next!). Motivation is complex, but once we understand how it works, we can create environments and activities that tap into true motivation. 

Motivation Myth #2: Intrinsic motivation comes after extrinsic motivation.  

Truth: Some people think intrinsic motivation (which comes from within a person) comes after extrinsic motivation (which comes from external rewards, consequences, or pressures). But intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are entirely different and work for different types of activities. Often adults will try to set up an extrinsic reward system to motivate youth to do an activity hoping that after some time they will become intrinsically motivated to do it themselves. This just doesn’t work! Extrinsic motivation (incentives) tends to work well when you want youth (or adults!) to do small, repetitive, or short-term behavioral tasks. Those gold stars work great for getting youth to help clean up before transitioning and maybe even getting them to read for 20 minutes, but the gold stars won’t lead to a long-term change in behavior or attitude, which require intrinsic motivation. If you want youth to value cleaning up their space or reading you must tap into intrinsic motivation. Which leads to myth #3. 

Motivation Myth #3: The type of motivator doesn’t matter if it gets the job done! 

Truth: Often, assigning an extrinsic motivator to tasks is demotivating! (Ouch!) In a really big study that has been repeated several times, researchers found that paying people (an extrinsic motivator) to do things that require deep thinking or things that they are interested in doing without any motivator decreases their motivation to do the thing. One of these studies looked at people solving puzzles. One group was put in a room and told to try to solve a challenging puzzle with no promise of a reward. Another group was put in another room with the same puzzles and told to try to solve the challenging puzzle and that if they did they’d get paid. The unpaid group solved more puzzles faster than the paid group. This study has been repeated with job salaries and the results were the same—extrinsic motivators just don’t work for deep thinking and seem to take the fun out of doing interesting things!

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So, what can we do? First, we must understand how motivation works. To feel motivated to do a challenging task, youth (and adults) have to feel 3 things: (1) competence – the feeling like they CAN do the thing; (2) autonomy –the feeling that they have a choice and some control in how it is done; and (3) relationships or purpose –this means connecting what they are doing to a larger purpose or community. Now that we know what these are, we can design around these. 

To ensure youth feel competent, make sure they have what they need to do the task and that they have a grasp of the basic skills necessary to do the task. Let’s say you are helping a young person during Power Hour on a difficult math assignment. One thing you can do to ensure youth feel successful is arrange all the materials they might need—pencils, scratch paper, a calculator, and any text you are using. For lower elementary to middle school, you might want to have counters, base ten blocks and algebra tiles on hand as well. Next, you want to take a quick inventory of what the youth can already do and provide scaffolds (those base ten blocks!) if they aren’t ready to do the assignment independently yet. Finally, competence is reinforced through messaging. We want to encourage youth that we believe in them, that they can succeed if they work hard, and normalize the idea that they grow skills through practice. Our society often rewards being fast and being first, so Clubs must create a culture where the process—even if it is slow—is recognized and rewarded. 

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The next key to motivation is autonomy. Young people feel a sense of autonomy when they get to make meaningful choices. This can be tricky to navigate because a young person might tell you they choose to be on their phone instead of doing their homework during Power Hour. The solution to this is to get the choice to be about a larger goal. Instead of, “how do you want to spend your time this afternoon?”, ask, “what goal do you want to work on before you go to the gym/art/kitchen/etc.?” In addition, you can ask youth if they’d rather work in a group, pick a comfortable space, and select music to play while they work. Autonomy can be designed into a structured experience. If you’ve created a culture that recognizes and rewards practice, youth will be eager to work on their Power Hour goals.

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The last key to the motivation formula is relationships and purpose. This is the most open-ended of the three factors that drive motivation because it can look many different ways. If you want to tap into relationships, people tend to want to do things when they get to do them with other people. Going back to the Power Hour example, if the young person you are working with has a friend who can work with them to complete the task, they will both be more intrinsically motivated to do challenging things. But it is not necessary for youth to have a best friend to work with. Sometimes, doing a challenging activity with someone they are not friends with can be the catalyst for strengthening a relationship. Relationships are so critical for children and adolescents that we should plan for young people to get to work with peers on anything that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. Having a friendly peer at their side helps them feel more competent. 

We could also tap into a sense of purpose for doing a challenging task. A purpose is different from a goal because it is more often about community and involves other people. This is why relationships and purpose are under the same heading. If a young person wants to get an A in their math class, that is a goal, but a purpose would be learning math so that they can be a scientist who fixes some injustice or problem in their community. Having a sense of purpose is related to development, so teens are much more likely to tap into a purpose than a youth whose world is more contained. Helping teens see how doing their homework during Power Hour connects to a larger purpose requires us to know something about our teens, which gets us back to relationships. 

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Positive youth outcomes are a result of sustained attendance and meaningful engagement in high-yield activities. As youth get older, their attention starts to get pulled in many directions. This doesn’t mean they aren’t motivated, though! As Youth Development Professionals, we hold the keys to helping young people tap into the factors of motivation and to help them understand motivation for themselves so that they can lead healthy, fulfilling lives.  

One last thing, it is completely normal to not feel motivated sometimes. When you notice a young person isn’t motivated, this can be a great time to connect with them because we’ve all felt unmotivated from time to time. Temporary fluctuations in motivation are normal, but a severe or prolonged drop may be cause for concern. If you note drastic or prolonged changes in motivation or if a young person seems unmotivated because they can’t achieve perfection on a task, it may be time to seek additional support. Check out a Mental Health Resource List and Teen Mental Health Discussion Guide on BGCA.net. 

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What kind of motivators work for your youth? How do you support teens as they are navigating through high school and making plans for the future? We want to know! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email ClubXBlog@bgca.org.

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