Motivating Teens: Pain, Pleasure, & the Pressure to Achieve

Have you ever found yourself doing something for fear of negative consequences?  Ever tried to achieve something difficult, just to prove to yourself that you can?  Have you ever pushed yourself to do a dreaded task, only to find you truly love what you are doing?  Think about each of these scenarios. Why do we do what we do?  What is the source of our motivation?  Motivation can be thought of as a movement away from pain or toward pleasure.  You may do your best on a project at work to avoid getting laid off.  This is a movement away from pain.  You may bump up your training miles so that you can run a marathon.  Gaining the personal satisfaction of completing a marathon is a movement toward pleasure.

We have all done things to avoid pain or feel pleasure.  In fact, chances are good that we have all used these strategies to influence our teen’s actions.  Think about these scenarios. “Be nice to your sister, or you will have to do extra chores.” This teen may listen to avoid extra work.  “If you finish your course with an ‘A’, I will sign you up for guitar lessons.” This teen may perform for the enjoyment of taking guitar.  A teen can try to move away from pain and toward pleasure at the same time.  Recently, a high school student told me, “I want to do better in school. I like it when I do well in class.  Plus, if you are not a good student, people think you are stupid…even if you are not.” This student wants to experience the pleasure of doing well, while also wanting to avoid negative comments from friends.

Let’s think about how this is seen in our schools.  In schools, we talk about achievement motivation. Generally speaking, achievement motivation is the desire to accomplish. It is an important determinant of the types of goals set, amount of effort put forth, and degree of persistence in the face of

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...
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challenge.  One of the ways in which achievement motivation is related to the movement away from pain is through fear of failure.  Students who compare themselves to a standard of excellence may be motivated to achieve because they do not want to fail.  If they do not believe they can compete with the standards of excellence, they may give up.  So, fear of failure may push some teens to achieve and others to quit trying.  Combining fear of failure with the high-pressure culture that exists in many of our schools across the country may be especially harmful.

The Race to Nowhere is a thought provoking film that depicts the real-life stories of struggling young people, families, and educators.  This documentary portrays teens that have developed stress-related illnesses like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, and educators that are frustrated with having to teach to the test.  A student that fears doing poorly may ask a teacher to share specifics about a test, or even cheat if it will get them a good grade.  Sadly, many of the advanced students end up taking remedial classes in college because they didn’t internalize the information learned. The film suggests that school is no longer a place to learn to think critically and solve problems, but an institution the produces young adults who are unprepared and don’t know how to think for themselves.  We have to ask if it is fair to expect teens to be highly motivated when we spend the majority our time acting from a place a fear, or moving away from pain.  Many students need to find the pleasure in learning in order to be self-starters and personally motivated to achieve.  How do we tap into the enjoyable aspects of school and life outside of school?  The Race to Nowhere brings awareness to the need for families, educators, and policy makers to challenge our current assumptions about what is required to do well in school and compete in the global economy.

Please share your thoughts about The Race to Nowhere and what we can do to raise strong, healthy, and motivated teens.

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