We all have likely experienced times when we feel ‘stuck in a rut’ and struggle with motivation. That’s okay, and totally normal. But, it’s helpful to have some strategies and ways to work through times when motivation seems low!

This may be especially helpful for children who have been in therapy for many years, or are a bit older (looking at you, tweens and teens!) who may not be as excited for their weekly therapy appointments.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation:

While I’m not a psychologist, it’s important to note the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation refers to performing a behavior or engaging in activity in order to earn a reward or to avoid punishment. Intrinsic motivation refers to performing a behavior or engaging in an activity because it is personally rewarding. In essence, the activity itself is the ‘reward.’

Although we are not behavioral therapists by profession, we certainly use various motivational techniques in order to encourage children and young adults to engage in therapeutic activities. It is always our goal to plan activities that are age-appropriate, fun or interesting to the child, and individualized. However, sometimes external reinforcement or a token system/chart is helpful, especially when a child might feel overwhelmed by many, often challenging, tasks to complete. Especially for younger children, these visual charts, paired with a tangible or concrete reward (e.g., sticker, time to play with a preferred toy) can be highly motivating! These external rewards should always be paired with verbal praise (e.g., “Way to go, awesome work!”), with the idea that the tangible item can be phased out over time.

But, what happens when these systems aren’t as effective, or when a child is older and ‘sticker charts’ are not considered appropriate?  It is SO important to determine what is intrinsically motivating for the child at this point (if not sooner!) and support these activities or interests.

Talk about the “WHY”:

Perhaps your child wants to try a new hobby, join a sports team, find a part-time job, or spend more time with friends outside of school. These may be activities that your child will find intrinsically motivating or enjoyable. However, in order to participate in these activities, they may need to address various underlying skills such as: social skills, problem-solving, money management, or physical endurance, just to name a few. Many times children who feel ‘stuck’ and less motivated to complete therapy activities are having difficulty remembering their “why” and may benefit from some gentle reminders. Discussions and ongoing conversations with your child’s therapist(s) will be so helpful in focusing on the reasoning behind weekly therapy sessions and specific activities, but some other ideas to try, especially for slightly older children might be:

Create a vision board

Make it as elaborate/artistic or simple as you want! Print out pictures, draw, or simply write down hopes and dreams. Display it at home, and revisit your child’s aspirations if they need some encouragement.

Have the child participate in goal setting and talk openly about goals

If a child helps to create goals for him or herself, they will likely be more invested in these goals and more motivated to work toward achieving them!

Do a trial run

Participate in a one-time event or check to see if your child can drop-in to a class or community activity. Debrief afterwards and discuss what went well and what was challenging. Connect any challenges back to relevant goal areas in therapy.

Job shadow

For older children or teens entering the work force, job shadowing is such a helpful way to learn about skills that may be required for specific jobs. These skills can be addressed within therapy sessions with 1:1 support!

Continue to support your child as they grow and their interests or passions may change, and seek ways to motivate them in meaningful ways!

Writer: Marie Harper, MS, CCC-SLP