Good News

Intrinsically Motivating Experience


Teacher singing with children. Royalty Free Stock Photo

Imagine a world where we asked our kids to do something and they did it right away, happily and without reserve or complaint. As parents, teachers or other authority figures, there are days where one may wonder, is this even possible? Is it possible that kids can move forward and take care of responsibility independently because they want to at any age throughout childhood or teenage years?  It is possible that it is worth it to the kids? How do we get challenge or responsibility to be worth it, to be intrinsically motivating enough to the individual to take care of self growth and responsibility without a nagging, constant eye keeping watch over the child?

This week, as I was supervising some of my college students practicing experience in a wonderful facility, with deliberate, compassionate, motivated staff, the children that the students were working with were doing well, attending, participating, getting along with peers, etc.  As the Music Therapy students continued to work, the children were quietly given a reward that was totally unobtrusive to the session. After sessions were finished, the student asked me if she should be doing that also, giving that same reward. I was so happy someone had asked me this question, my reply was more than ready. I said, “No, you should never have to.”

I went on to explain to her, in all that she was doing, she was rewarding the children with something better, more sustainable and with easy access.  As she began the session with her plan, but carefully watched each child’s nuance, need, interest, strength and worked them into the session, she kept her ultimate goals in mind but adapted individual preferences and discomforts to maintain not only structure and flow throughout, but she also gave value that could not be surpassed by any item she could hand to the child.  She honored their individual identity while simultaneously linking the children’s interest, attention, and efforts to a united whole.  In the music she chose, she kept their age, interests, and needs in mind. In the predictability of the session she made them feel safe, but added just enough surprise to keep their attention. In her awareness and slight alteration of dynamics as to what over-stimulated certain individuals and what kept others energized and motivated to attend, she kept the group’s interest. In the roles she facilitated in their individual participation abilities, no child was left behind, but all participated and were challenged according to their individual abilities, not a standardized benchmark. She invited challenging levels of participation from individuals, but did not demand it, and rewarded the kids with the prosody in her voice and the glimmer in the eye contact that she made with them that said, “That is wonderful!’, and lastly, the spoken words of acknowledgment and acceptance that they each needed. Each received immediate reward in the moment-to-moment experience of actively participating in a sensory, auditory, tactile, visual, unified experience, starting, pausing, stopping, and attending in unison.  The wonderful thing about music is that, through the careful and deliberate use of it’s elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, and silence), one can orchestrate, order, or change development by slightly altering one element and possibly maintaining another, or by slightly altering more than one element so that changes made entrain or soothe differences but are yet undetectable enough to maintain predictability and a sense of safety.

When an individual is challenged enough to maintain attention, but not enough to produce stress and individually receive what they most need, there is reason not only to move closer but to want to come back and continue on. When what we receive is intrinsically motivating, there is no reason to distract with an outside reward.  As Maya Angelo put it, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC







  • Etain Ferdenzi

    I teach whole class music to children aged 5-11. I do offer physical rewards in the form of stickers, but need to do it at once or the meaning of the moment passes for the child. Some children also are on a behaviour plan, adopted by the class teacher, which entails smiley faces in a book, which tracks their daily behaviour in my lesson as well as others. The stickers are a valuable way in which to communicate to important others-peers, adults and family. I don’t hand out stickers without good reason, although on some days,the children seem to respond to the sticker game more competitively. I also make sure that I praise for a valid reason, however small.

    As I read your article, I began to reflect on my own teaching style. Naturally an energetic and positive teacher, I  had not considered the way I question, develop learning and positive body language as a reward. And the quote from Maya Angelo was so beautiful and memorable. So at the end of my lessons, I must remember more often to ask young children not “what did you learn! “but “how did you feel?”

    • Antoinette

      Etain, I so appreciate your comment. It seems to me that there is so much training on using stickers, some of the best teachers, therapists use these only trying for and intending the best. I also think a little bit comes from society today and what we view as rewarding. These are the things we want to give, but possibly there are easier things, things closer to home and more available than we realize that have a longer lasting effect that work even better.

      • Etain Ferdenzi

        I also run family music sessions for babies and toddlers with their parents. I know that in these sessions, as a practitioner,  I am modelling very much for other adults how to interact with their little ones as well as with other adults, as well as other skills which are intrinsic to life as a whole. Some years ago, I was delivering sessions on a music project to which a young mum came. She was one of these vulnerable young mums targetted by our  local children’s centre. Like other adults she was shy about singing in front of others and typically, it took much support to persuade her to participate aloud in our singing games, but we succeeded albeit in a small way. Yesterday, I happened to be at the supermarket checkout in front of her, although could not quite place her, having not seen her for 4 years. We got chatting and she was trying to place at what group she had met me. She then realised (proudly) that I was the one who had said she had a nice voice.  
        My point is that adults, like children, also need to experience that feeling which Maya Angelo mentions. (I just love that quote you shared!)

        • Antoinette

          Etain, I totally agree. Age does not matter. And how about you, was that not eternally gratifying to know what you had done for that women, released her fear, provided an opportunity for a bit of freedom into who she is, what she can do? I love that quote to. Etain, you have got the key right in your pocket. I know you already know this, when you use it, it not only provides joy for the other, but for yourself also. I have a feeling you have provided those intrinsic rewards in the past more often than you realize.

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