Want Your Teen To Do Better in School? Focus on Motivation

In this Q & A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a timely conversation with Ayelet Fishbach, author of Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation and past president of the Society for the Science of Motivation. As teens across the country return to school, Fishbach offers advice for helping them achieve their goals – both inside and outside the classroom. We’re thrilled she joined us for this meaningful discussion.

 Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ayelet Fishbach

AG: Your book, Get It Done, is about motivation. What impacts motivation the most – factors that come from within us, or those from the outside world?

AF: We respond to our circumstances, so I’ll go with the outside world. But the good news is that we can change these circumstances to influence our behavior. For example, think about when you’re hungry. When you’re hungry, you tend to eat the food that’s in front of you. You’re more likely to make poor choices just to fill your stomach, eating higher-sugar and higher-calorie foods. But, if you fill your fridge before you have an empty stomach, making sure there are lots of fruits and veggies on hand, you’ll tend to make better food decisions when the time counts. This is also motivating. You motivate yourself by changing your circumstances.

AG: What have you discovered about teens and their ability to stay on task and achieve their goals?

AF: We generally find that ‘do-not’ goals are less motivating than ‘do’ goals. Part of the reason is that when you’re asked not to do something it becomes exactly what you want to do. We call it “psychological reactance” and it’s particularly strong among adolescents. Here’s a good way to think about this: Instead of a parent saying “Don’t hang out with Aidan, he’s a bad influence,” say, “Hang out with Saleem, he’s awesome.” There is much evidence that self-control develops with age. Teens are still learning.

It’s often more motivating to look back at what you’ve achieved than look ahead at what is still missing.

AG: When adolescents face obstacles, what are three of the most important strategies for navigating them?


A. Identify the obstacles. Identifying them is easier if you think about the obstacles as part of a pattern of behavior. Skipping homework is meaningless as one event, but if a student realizes that they tend to skip homework when they find it difficult, and that not doing their assignments just makes them fall further behind and makes it harder to achieve their goals, skipping homework becomes a behavior worth reconsidering. One solution is to make a rule about a certain behavior or challenge rather than deciding each time you encounter the obstacle. For example, a student might decide that no matter what she’s doing homework from 7-9 every night.

B. Look back. When monitoring progress toward a goal, it’s often more motivating to look back at what you’ve achieved than look ahead at what is still missing. In particular, at the beginning of a task, or when confidence is low, looking back reminds teens of what they have already accomplished, even if it’s baby steps.

C. Increase internal motivation. Teens can do this by strengthening the connection between the activity and the goal. Ask why you need to do this homework assignment (what’s the overarching goal) and how you’re going to accomplish it (what’s the action plan required). These questions increase the mental link between everyday tasks and the big goals they serve.

AG: You have a four-ingredient recipe for achieving any objective. What are those ingredients and how do they work?

AF: Set a goal, strive toward the goal, juggle multiple goals, and seek social support.

  • Goal setting involves identifying a goal that is essential and connected to specific targets. Ideally, it’s a “do” goal.
  • Goal striving involves monitoring progress and learning from feedback.
  • Goal juggling involves prioritizing and being flexible to change the importance of each goal.
  • Receiving social support is also critical for success, both for shared goals (those with classmates) and for individual goals (such as a personal exercise plan).

A final note: If you’d like more information about how to gather social support for your tween or teenager, consider helping them find a mentor from those in your community and read “The Importance of Mentors for Teens,” and  “It Takes a Village: Using the Power of Community to Raise Resilient Teens.”

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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