School-wide Incentive Programs Aren`t Doing What You Think They`re Doing

There are a multitude of variables as to why a student might struggle to meet expectations at school.  Maslow certainly comes to mind, especially when looking at this issue through an equity lens.

So if the issues are complex, why do we focus on motivation?  Maslow does not indicate motivation as the factor in preventing one from ascending up the Hierarchy of Needs – it would be a ludicrous argument!

In fact, Maslow says that we are already oriented toward ascending the Hierarchy of Needs and if we don`t ascend, its because something is holding us back (and it is not motivation).  People do well if they can.

Rewards and consequences are MOTIVATIONAL tools.  If we look at each student who is misbehaving as simply having a deficit in motivation, then we are assuming that he/she has the skills but chooses not to use them.

Why would we apply this lens to the skill of adapting to the school environment, when we certainly wouldn’t apply it to anything else, such as learning how to read, drive, or speak another language.

School-wide (and class-wide) incentive programs:

  • ignore Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • ignore the fact that within a classroom, there is a wide variability in social skills and self-regulation skills.
  • ignore the multitude of factors that contribute to a student’s readiness to learn.
  • ignore the notion that some are privileged and some are disadvantaged in schools and society based on class, race, gender, etc.

Kids do not systematically have a deficit in motivation, but somehow they end up being subjected to countless motivation-based interventions that are uninformed by what we know re: why kids struggle in school.

And if these motivation-based interventions are not successful, then the blame is assigned to the student and the strategies are uniformly applied to the next student who is struggling to meet expectations.

When I enter a school, no matter which neighbourhood it is in, I never say to myself: This school has a motivation problem.  And I don`t think Maslow would either.

All the evidence that we have indicates that it is reasonable to assume in practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, that there is an active will toward health, an impulse towards growth, or towards the actualization. – Abraham Maslow


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