The Motivation Breakthrough: Book Review

The Motivation Breakthrough

By Kathy Kuhl
Review of The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child by Richard Lavoie

Richard Lavoie is a world-class teacher with a real heart for children and teens. For many years he headed Eagle Hill School, a school for children with learning disabilities, so he knows about discouraged, frustrated students and how to help them. He is well-known for his classic video, How Difficult Can This Be? F.A.T. City. In it, he helps parents and teachers understand what it is like for kids to feel F.A.T.—Frustration, Anger, and Tension—in the classroom or any educational setting.

I’ve wanted to review this book for years. Once I had the privilege of meeting Rick Lavoie when we were both speaking at a conference. (He was the famous one!) He was enthusiastic about my helping parents homeschool children with learning challenges. His book, though written for teachers and for parents of kids in school, contains plenty to help all homeschoolers, whether they have children with learning challenges or not.

Five Myths About Motivation

Chapter One covers five myths about motivation:

  • “Nothing motivates that kid.” Everything we do is motivated. As Lavoie says, if you stop reading his book at page 8, we can’t just say the reader is not motivated. We’d say you feel motivated to stop reading and do something else.
  • “Some days he’s motivated, other days, not. Motivation varies daily.” Performance variation more likely results from the child’s learning style. Parents and teachers need to understand the frustration of a child who is motivated, but still has trouble mastering information and skills. (P. 11)
  • “A reward will motivate.” It may change behavior temporarily. But if I gave you $10 for every blog post you read on my website, that won’t make you keep reading my blog after I stop paying you.
  • “Competition will motivate.” Competition only motivates people who think they have a chance of winning. Spelling bees don’t motivate poor spellers. Competition against ourselves can motivate. For example, Lavoie points out that every year the Boston Marathon has 20,000 participants, but only two winners. People can be motivated to do their “personal best.”
  • “Punishment is an effective motivator.” Punishment is only effective when it presents an immediate threat. After all, people who want to speed will slow down when they see the police, then speed on. If you use punishment as your primary way to motivate, the child will associate you with punishment. That actually lessens your ability to motivate.

Learned Helplessness, and How to Unlearn It

Some kids have learned to believe that they cannot succeed, Lavoie argues. He calls this learned helplessness. These children blame every failure on themselves and every success on external forces: “I failed because I’m stupid.” “I passed because it was an easy quiz.”

Lavoie gives some initial strategies for overcoming this issue, including:

  • Teach students that their performance will be inconsistent.
  • Make child aware of their automatic negative thoughts.
  • Ask them what they would say if they were falsely accused.
  • Explain that negative thought patterns are like false accusations, and should be treated the same way: refuted with evidence.
  • Discuss the implications of failure, because kids tend to magnify situations unrealistically. (“I failed this quiz. I’m going to fail the test. I’ll never pass fourth grade.”)

The Learning-Teaching Cycle

Lavoie also shares a method for teaching difficult tasks, the learning-teaching cycle:

  • Do the task for him. Explain what you’re doing. After the first few times require him to guide you verbally through the procedure. “What do I do next?”
  • Do it with him. Move from him assisting you, to you assisting him.
  • Watch him do it. This step is important, but often neglected, Lavoie says. Observe the child work. Offer suggestions, praise, and reinforcement.
  • Have him do it. Don’t fall back into old patterns of doing the task for the child. This feeds learned helplessness.

Motivation in Your (Home)school

Chapter Two covers what makes a motivating classroom. While focused on the classroom, this chapter’s advice on atmosphere and culture can apply to your homeschool room or your homeschool group class.

Chapter Three helps you determine which factors motivate each particular child. Lavoie uses Maslow’s research on eight forces that motivate people: gregariousness, autonomy, status, inquisitiveness, aggression, power, recognition, and affiliation. It’s important to note that each person is motivated by several forces in varying degrees.

Understanding what motivates a child can help you understand dynamics in your homeschool. One child enjoying gregariousness and affiliation might enjoy team projects. On the other hand, a student motivated mainly by autonomy and status might prefer to do her part of the project very much by herself. Yet she would long for group praise afterwards. Lavoie explains this well.

Dangers and Rewards of Motivation

Lavoie takes care to explain that none of these motivating forces are inherently bad or good. Aggression (perhaps better called assertiveness) can be a good thing in righting wrongs and fighting injustice. A child motivated mainly by power may grow up to be a leader. Each future leader and justice fighter needs guidance to develop wisdom and to lead and fight well and fairly.

While motivating factors can be productive, they can also cause trouble. Affiliation, the need to be part of a group, can lead to pleasures as simple as decorating your home in honor of your beloved football team–or trouble as deep as gang membership.

The chapter includes a survey you can give to your child–and yourself. You also need to know what motivates you, because that can affect what you tend to use to motivate your child, who may be very different from you.

The Six Motivators

Lavoie then adapts those eight factors into six motivators and spends a chapter on each. People of all ages are motivated by some combination of several of these motivators:

  • Projects (Chapter Four)
  • People (Chapter Five)
  • Praise (Chapter Six)
  • Prizes (Chapter Seven)
  • Prestige (Chapter Eight)
  • Power (Chapter Nine)

For each, Lavoie explains the motivator and discusses how to make the most of it. He provides tips on which problems to watch out for, and which solutions to attempt, in both home and school settings.

Then in Chapter Ten, he addresses a broader problem. All people, including our kids, are motivated by more than one of these motivators. So Lavoie turns to the task of creating a culture in the classroom—or for us, the homeschool room— that motivates kids in a variety of ways.

Final Chapters

I can’t go into all the other chapters in as much detail, but here they are in a nutshell:

  • The role of parents. Lavoie is thinking of parents with children in a school, but he has a lot to say here that applies to all parents. He focuses on how parents can teach kids how to work.
  • Parent involvement in academic issues. Here he focuses on nurturing a love of reading and on building a child’s general knowledge. This is noteworthy because general knowledge is an area where students with learning challenges often lag behind their peers.
  • Explaining learning disabilities to your child.
  • Household chores and work ethic.
  • Additional techniques. Lavoie takes lessons from what advertisers use to motivate kids. He considers how we can apply some of those techniques to good ends.

Finally, the afterword provides an excellent summary. Among other points, Lavoie explains that to be motivated a person must feel that a goal is attractive, that the effort required is realistic, and that they are likely to achieve the goal.

While written for teachers and for parents of children in school, The Motivation Breakthrough has plenty of material that can help homeschool parents. I recommend it.

What helps you motivate your child? Please comment below.

Note: you can watch the hour-long F.A.T. City video here. 

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