How Do You Motivate Your Child?

Breaks. Movement Breaks. Sensory Breaks. Breaks from Tasks.

At home these often look like hitting the pause button on cleaning or getting dressed or y’know all the administrative tasks of your day and engaging in some targeted play. In daycare or school these are generally understood to be recess, but recess has been so cut down in the last 20 years that they can also be those play breaks.

I’m sure every parent is familiar with bribing children using contingent instructions.

If you do X, you can Y. If you clean up your room, you can play video games afterwards.

If you sit and listen to the teacher, you can go outside and play after. Contingent instructions are different from bribes they sound similar because we’re using that if/then language- contingent instructions are more about holding activities and schedules hostage than stuff. Bribes tend to be more like “if you get in the car we can stop and get Timbits on the way home.” They’re getting something tangible out of a bribe and that’s a whole other topic.

Both are manipulations.

We’re trying to manipulate kids into placing enough importance on a demand that they follow through with it. We’re trying to “motivate” them. I really hate that word because motivation is a construct. It doesn’t exist. I’ll explain a bit more in a minute. But we’re trying to tell them that if they just put out the energy and effort into our thing thing first then they can do what they want to do. We’re basically telling our kids that they have to earn the ability to be autonomous.

I see adults trying to manipulate children into action with contingent instruction all the time. It’s probably one of the most common “behavior management” strategies across all different forms of parenting. This is odd, because it works sporadically at best. Contingent instructions only work for children who already had the skills and the energy to do the thing. If your child does not have the skills and/or the energy to do what you’re asking them to do- no amount of “motivation” on God’s green earth is going to make them comply.

This is probably one of the biggest complaints from parents that there’s nothing they can give their child to make them want to follow directions…

But that is universally untrue. It’s fake news.

There is one thing that you can give every child that will support them in following through on the demands you’ve placed on them and that’s a break. 

There are several blog posts on stress, you can check out these ones for reference:

What Is Sensory Stress? When Does It Happen

What Exactly Is Stress?

What Is Toxic And Healthy Stress?

If stress is energy expenditure, and kids do well if they can, and you are asking your child to do something within their abilities they’ve done it before, you have supports in place to compensate for weaker skills, etc. Then it’s fair to assume that the reason your child isn’t following your directions is that they don’t have the energy available to do so. We can get them the energy they need to comply, by giving them a break.

A break is 10-20 minutes maximum doing something regulating. What each child’s breaks look like are going to be extremely different it’s a process figuring out regulating activities, which is why we spend most of your first couple of months in ParentAbility figuring it out because what one child will find regulating, another won’t. The easiest example I have of this is introverts vs extroverts: introverts find solitude regulating, whereas extroverts find interaction with other people regulating. Then you have ambiverts who need a finely tuned balance of both to feel regulated and that’s just like one aspect of regulation.

There’s lots of trial and error and observation involved.

That said you can almost bet that that thing you’re withholding in an attempt to motivate your child to do your thing first?

That’s probably regulating for them to some degree.

Now, I know why parents and teachers, and daycare providers scoff at giving children breaks when they need them because they view children as trying to get out of doing things. They view the children are manipulative. They do not believe that children do well if they can. If you believe that children do well if they want to, then you’re going to see the need for a break as a manipulation rather than what it is a genuine need. This is why we dig in and go back to that contingent instruction because we’re like “Oh no. Do you think you’re gonna manipulate me? Then I’ll manipulate you!”

It becomes a power struggle and nothing gets done.

It generally ends with the parent or teacher losing their mind and the child using cortisol to do the task. If you want more information on that, go watch the episode on yelling.

If we believe that children do well if they can, and they aren’t doing something we know is within their wheelhouse then it becomes clear that we need to hit the pause button on our thing, and give them 10-20 minutes of their thing first so that they can refill their tank and have the energy available to do ours.

My favorite example of this is my own son, Logan. He’s 8 now- but when he was 5 he started Jr. Kindergarten. Something to know about Logan is that he finds running very regulating. He loves to run and swim. Unfortunately, swimming isn’t something constantly available to him, especially in the winter, so he uses running more often than not. There are a few other activities that regulate him pretty well too- but running is his favorite and most available.

When Logan started kindergarten, and he was having a rough go of it. Because there was a lot more sitting and listening than he was used to, he was learning a lot of new things, navigating social situations by himself for the first time. All the stressors that come with being new to a structured school environment. Fair to say he had a lot of things draining his tank, and he didn’t have me there to help him refill it anymore.

One day I get a text from his teacher and she tells me that she’s struggling with him and getting him to engage in something called a math box which as I understood it was like a box full of math activities they were expected to do every day. I found that rather odd because unlike me, my son is actually a very mathematical thinker. He’s good at it!

I asked some questions and she told me that when he refuses to do his math box, he was asking to go for a run. When she denied him he was getting extremely upset, crying, screaming into pillows, isolating himself. He was having a meltdown.

Sound familiar?

She said she’d tried telling him if he did his math he could go for a run at recess but he just kept crying “I can’t, I can’t.” She had no idea what to do this was really out of character for him, and if she put the math box away and let him go play he was fine for the rest of the day.

Sounds like a kid trying to avoid a task they don’t like doesn’t it?

I knew something was up because he’s good at math and because he was specifically telling her he needed an activity I know is extremely regulating for him. I’d worked his entire life to figure out what activities are regulating for him and that he knew how to ask for them. I wasn’t surprised at all that he was melting down when it was denied to him. The teacher and I went back and forth and finally, she agreed that if I signed a release form that she’d send home in his bag that evening that she would let him go run around in the yard for 10 minutes when this happened.

I sign the paper, and he goes to school the next day, and I didn’t hear anything from her until after he was on the bus coming home. She was floored because she did what I’d asked and let him go for 10 minutes to run around, and came back inside did his entire math box without a single error, and then cleaned it up, helped a peer, and then went about his day. No refusal, no melting down. By giving him a break and allowing him to do something he finds very regulating which put gas back in his tank he was then able to use that gas to do what he was asked to do and carry on without issue.

Now, I know that all sounds extremely simple and it was but only because of the foundation we had in place prior to that. I knew what Logan found regulating. We’d practiced taking breaks at home and he was familiar with the boundaries around breaks. He was adept at asking for breaks. I knew the signs to look for to determine that he was dysregulated, I knew the questions to ask to verify my initial impression, and how to communicate that to his teacher. It would not have been a quick and simple problem to solve if none of those things had been in place and we had to figure out if it was a regulation problem or a skills problem, what regulated him, what the signs of dysregulation were for him, and teach him to self-identify when he needed breaks, all while he was also in school. Not impossible, just a lot more work.

It’s totally possible it’s just a much more involved process than if that foundation is already there to be built upon.

Can you see how, when we prioritize regulation everybody wins?

In that situation, Logan won he got his needs met and he worked on his math. The teacher won she didn’t have to deal with a melting down child disrupting the class and he did the work assigned to him and all it took was prioritizing his regulation.

Yet we do this to kids over and over and over to kids throughout the day, and then we complain that their behavior is poor.

I have a client who has been working with her school for two years now to get this mindset shift in place because they continuously use removing recess as a “consequence” for his dysregulation and she’s frustrated because every year she has to re-teach them that you can’t hold a child’s regulation opportunities hostage and then complain that they’re dysregulated.

You can’t punish a child into regulating.

You can’t dangle an opportunity to regulate sometime in the future as motivation to do a task a child isn’t regulated enough to complete. This is why the concept of motivation is a construct, if you’re out of energy, if you’re stressed, if you don’t have the skills to do something.

No amount of shiny objects or opportunites are going to resolve those barriers.

Think of it like if you’re sick which is generally an extreme state of dysregulation.

Iyou’re sick you’re in bed feeling like death warmed over and then someone pops up in front of you and says “Hey- I’ll give you a million dollars” and all you have to do is get up, get dressed, put on some makeup, and go stand in a room full of strangers for the day and act like you’re not sick. If anyone suspects you’re sick you lose the prize. A cool mil is a lot of very tangible motivation but it doesn’t matter how motivated you are, or how simple the task is…you’re really sick, and there’s no hiding that.

You know you’re going to lose, and therefore why put in the effort?

In fact, this whole stunt is probably just going to make you feel sicker because now you’re also upset that you’re missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s the same with anything we try to motivate our children with it doesn’t matter how badly they want to do what we’re asking them to do they’re dysregulated. There’s no way around that. There’s no hiding it.

They’re going to fail.

Why put in the effort and drain themselves further?

Only now they’re also upset because they know they won’t meet your expectations and they aren’t going to get the thing they want. We’ve just made it worse.

Motivation doesn’t exist.

Alright, this is getting long but I hope that gave you something to think about in terms of why holding breaks hostage is and trying to use contingent instructions on our children just results in more meltdowns and less compliance.

If this is you if this is something you’ve done, it’s not working, you’re frustrated, your child is frustrated and you’re stuck on how to get out of it, chances are you would both benefit greatly from participating in ParentAbility.

The first step to joining ParentAbility is to take my free class it’s an hour class, it’s available at a bunch of different times every day and in it I explain the framework that I use to help my clients figure this stuff out. How we figure out what your child’s regulation is. How we build skills and then if at the end of the class you’re ready to get to work you can hop on in.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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