Understanding Motivation

Every therapist is aware of the importance of consistent home practice to hone newly learned skills and promote neuroplasticity. But often, irrespective of your valiant efforts to educate clients, the urgency about this just doesn’t seem to have the desired impact. Students simply aren’t motivated to do the work.

Motivation is what directs your behavior towards a particular goal, such as meeting a physiological, emotional, or social need. The satisfaction you derive from fulfilling these needs in turn motivates you to behave this way again. In essence – motivation is the reason you do something.

For example, hunger is a physiological need that motivates you to go grocery shopping, cook a meal, and then eat it to remove that feeling of hunger. Unless of course, you decide upon a shortcut and order from a takeout. But if you order from a takeout too often you may become overweight, triggering a new motivation – to exercise.

While all of this seems quite simple in theory, unfortunately, when it comes to practice, it isn’t all that simple. If it were, there would be far fewer people who sign up for gym memberships in January only to relinquish them soon after!

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

There are both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. While these terms may seem complicated, they are actually pretty simple.

Intrinsic motivation is, for example, when your client practices because it feels good to accomplish or become more proficient at whatever skill you are working on. The motivation comes from within.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is when your client practices because of external influences. It could be the praise you offer the child after he/she put in a good effort, or some type of reward. Here, motivation is a product of external factors.

You need some practical strategies to implement. Here they are:

4 Effective Motivational Strategies

1. SMART Goals

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. The elements of the SMART framework work together, creating a goal that is carefully planned, clear and trackable.

You may have set goals for the child in the past that were difficult to achieve because they were too vague, aggressive, or poorly framed. Struggling to accomplish a poorly designed goal can seem impossible and cause the child to give up. SMART goals can help solve these problems as they establish a strong foundation for achieving success.

S = Specific

Be as clear and specific as possible with what you want the child to achieve. The narrower your goal, the more easily you can clarify the steps necessary to achieve it.

M = Measurable

How can the child determine if progress is being made towards the goal? Setting milestones along the way will provide the opportunity to re-evaluate and course-correct as needed. When the student achieves those milestones, remember to reward him/her in small but meaningful ways.

A = Achievable

Setting goals that the child can reasonably accomplish within a certain timeframe will help keep the child motivated and focused. Before the child begins working toward a goal, determine whether it’s something the child can achieve now, or if there are additional preliminary steps that should be taken to become better prepared.

R = Relevant

When setting goals for the student, consider whether or not they are relevant. Each of the goals/objectives should align with the larger, long-term goals of the therapy. If an objective doesn’t contribute toward your broader goals with the child, you should rethink it.

T = Time-based

What is your time frame for the goal? An end date can help provide motivation and will help you to prioritize.

2. Make it Make Sense

Understanding the “why” can really motivate people, including children. (Why should I do this? Why should I care?) For most kids, a quick conversation might be enough.

Using an analogy that the student can relate to can help bring the concept to life. For example, if the child likes sports, remind him that the best players practice for hours between games in order to make the perfect pitch or jump shot to win the game. If she likes the arts, remind her that it takes many hours of practice to master an instrument or a dance move.

Practicing a skill triggers a pattern of electrical signals through the neurons in our brains. As we practice over time and master the skill, the strength and speed of those signals will increase.

3. Reinforcement: Keep it Positive

Negative reinforcement can often be detrimental to the child’s motivation. That’s why, no matter what, you must always identify ways to provide your client with the opposite: encouragement.

This can be done in simple ways:

  • Effusive but genuine praise for a job well done, upon completion of the session

  • Share the child’s achievements with parents and extended family

  • Ask the child to identify a fun activity he/she can enjoy upon finishing the homework. It could be a favorite TV show or yummy treat, or quality time with a parent

4. Dealing with Frustration

It’s just bound to happen. Children will become frustrated with a task or their lack of success at some point during home practice. Since you won’t be available to provide encouragement to keep it going, it’s vital to discuss beforehand how to deal with those feelings. Sometimes it may be as simple as taking a quick break, then keep going!


Keeping the child motivated is what keeps him/her coming back to sessions and investing efforts to improve. Each student is unique, so you’ll need to identify what resonates with and motivates your student, to keep the momentum going.

So whether it’s an emphasis on setting the proper SMART goals, helping the child to understand why practicing between sessions is essential to success, heartfelt encouragement, learning how to deal with frustration, or some unique blend of all of the above, just remember, there’s something that will motivate every one of your clients.