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  • Jim Haesen

Why is motivation critical to learn?

If I were to say that motivation is necessary to learn new skills this might not come as a surprise to you. Like this simple statement, many concepts in ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) are intuitive and are things that we already know to be true. The difference in ABA is that we try to “apply” these concepts in a conscious and systematic way.


In order to learn something new we have to be motivated. Motivation to learn can be direct and short-term, like when a child is determined to figure out how to use a door handle to open the door and gain access to what’s on the other side or it can be long term and less direct like when a university student drags their way through a four year program in order to graduate and work in a field they love.


Motivation is individual and may change based on the person’s own interests. For example, a 25-year-old individual may be motivated by money or by freedom, while a 5-year-old child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be motivated by toys, stickers or praise. It’s also important to note that motivation may change. For example, I love coffee first thing in the morning because I’m tired and need a boost of caffeine to get my day started. However, if someone were to offer me coffee at 7pm, I would not be motivated to accept this as I know it would keep me up all night. For this reason, it is important to constantly assess motivation to determine what is the child’s preference in this moment.


It is important to note that motivation is based on a state of being deprived of something. If an individual is allowed unrestricted access to something like an iPad and then you try to use it to motivate them to clean their room, they may not be motivated to access the iPad because of the fact that they have already had the iPad for a long time that day.


Try these things to assess your child’s motivation:


1) Place 5-6 toys out in their play room, observe what they go toward and for how long they engage with that toy. This will create a hierarchy of preferred toys your child likes to play with that day.

2) Try showing your child 2 preferred items such as a toy and snack and ask them to “pick one”, see which item they select first.

3) Recycle old toys: place your child’s current toys in a bin and out of sight for 2 weeks. After this time, re-introduce the toys in the bin and see if your child’s motivation for the toys has increased again, given they haven’t seen the item in a while.

Stay tuned for our next blog on incidental teaching and how to use motivation to teach new skills during naturally occurring routines!

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