Three Keys to Motivating Youngsters

This is an excerpt from Teaching Children Physical Education-4th Edition by George Graham,Eloise ElliottS & tephen Palmer.

It’s common knowledge that children learn by doing. Research on teacher effectiveness clearly supports this premise. The challenge for teachers is to involve all of their students most of the time in activities that are appropriate for their varying skill levels. Successful teachers motivate children and adolescents by creating learning environments in which the tasks or activities are success oriented, autonomy supportive, and developmentally appropriate (Block, 1995; Hastie, Rudisill, & Wadsworth, 2013; Tjeerdsma, 1995).

Success Oriented

Failure, especially when we have never had much success, makes us want to quit trying. If we have never succeeded, there’s no reason to believe that continuing to try, and failing, will eventually lead to improvement. This rationale is quite typical of young learners who have yet to make the connection between lots of practice and success (Lee, 2004). To motivate students to practice, the task needs to be one at which they can be successful - highly successful. The research literature, as well as common sense, suggests that when we’re learning a new skill, success rates close to 80 percent are appropriate (Brophy & Good, 1986; Pellet & Harrison, 1996; Siedentop & Tannehill, 2000; Tjeerdsma, 1995).

With experience and age, we start to make the connection between practice and expertise (Lee, 2004). For example, an adult might think, If I want to be a good skater, I will need to practice a lot. It will probably take months or even years. In contrast a child might think, I want to be a good skater. I tried it today. I fell down a lot. I can’t skate.

To be a successful physical educator, you need to create and change tasks so that your students succeed at high rates. The variety of tasks described in chapter 4 provide the opportunity to accommodate a wide variety of skill levels in your class. You can also encourage your students to modify tasks on their own to make them easier or harder to better match their abilities. At the same time, discourage them from making social comparisons (Lee, 2004). Finally, try to make tasks fun so that your students enjoy doing them without necessarily realizing that they are leading to improvement. The following three examples, taken from actual classes, show how to design tasks so that youngsters can succeed.

Self-Adjusting Target Throwing

Each student has a beanbag and a cardboard box. Challenge them to throw the beanbag into the box but don’t tell them how far away from the box to stand. Watch how they adjust the distance based on their ability. The less skilled stand closer to their boxes; the more skilled stand farther away. Several successful throws might result in students moving farther away; several failures might result in taking a few steps closer to the box. Notice, too, that the more highly skilled children tolerate a lower rate of success than the less-skilled children (Rogers, Ponish, & Sawyers, 1991). This example focuses on elementary school children, but it can also apply to adolescents. For example, when teaching volleyball, you can allow students to choose the spot from which they serve the ball; in soccer, you can have students set cone goals up on their own and thus self-adjust the size of the goal by how far apart the cones are.

Self-Adjusting Shampoo

One morning as I (GG) was showering, I read the label on the shampoo bottle. It claimed that the shampoo was self-adjusting - it would adjust its cleaning action to the particular needs of each person’s hair. I thought, That’s exactly what we need for our classes - self-adjusting tasks that change based on the abilities and interests of the students in the class!

Slanty Rope

Here’s another example of designing a task to promote success. For elementary classes, set up two ropes on the floor in a slanty rope design (Mosston & Ashworth, 2002). At one end, the ropes are close together. At the other end, the ropes are much farther apart. Challenge students to jump over the river (the ropes) without landing in the water. Observe how they choose the location at which they jump to match their ability to jump for distance - the less skilled jump the river at the narrower end, and the better jumpers jump at the wider end.

The slanty rope principle can also be used with middle and high school students. For example, a traverse climbing wall (students climb sideways with their feet never more than 3 feet [1 m] above the floor) has many holds. Low-skilled students can climb using any holds they like. More skillful students can be given specific routes marked with colored tape that use smaller and more difficult holds. Even the highest-skilled climbers can find appropriately challenging routes. At any time, students can choose a more easily accessible or larger hold.

The point is that a large range of task difficulty is available. Students have the option to choose where along the slanty rope to jump or which route is best for them for climbing.

Varied Basketball Goal Heights

A third example of students wanting to be successful can be observed when several basketball goals are set at various heights for elementary school children. If given a choice, many choose to play at the lowest goal, thereby increasing their chances for success. Equipment manufacturers have recognized this and now sell adjustable basketball goals.

You can apply the same principle with middle and high school students. For example, in a volleyball, lacrosse, or field hockey unit, give students a choice of leagues in which to sign up. Volleyball leagues can include recreation (modified rules such as allowing the volleyball to bounce, playing with a volley trainer, using a lower net, and serving from anywhere), city (no calling double hits, serving from anywhere, letting the server choose the ball to use), and professional (calling double hits, playing by official rules). Students choose the league that is best for them, and they can also move from league to league.

It’s interesting to take any of the preceding examples and compare the involvement and interest of students when they have no choice (i.e., when the distance or height is the same for everyone). Typically, practice decreases and off-task behavior increases. The low-skilled student becomes frustrated; the higher-skilled ones become bored (Mandigo & Thompson, 1998). The purpose of designing and adjusting tasks so that students can be successful is to encourage them to continue trying. That is true in class and out of class. In math homework, for example, experts recommend that problems assigned to young learners allow them to succeed at a 100 percent success rate, thereby increasing their motivation to do the homework.

I (GG) wish I had had math teachers who provided math homework assignments at which I could have succeeded. My memories are still vivid of the frustration, leading to exasperation, when I could do only 2 of 10 math homework problems. I wonder how much that contributed to my feelings of incompetence in math today.

Obviously, not every task you design can be self-adjusting and allow students to be continually successful. The principle, however, is that success is fun and motivating - and you want them to feel good about their physical abilities. They will have plenty of opportunities to experience failure and frustration - you don’t need to intentionally create them.

How Successful Are the Students?

One way to determine the success rate of your students is to use a coding form to provide objective evidence (figure 8.1). The form is easy to use; in fact, some children use it quite well (Wolfe & Sharpe, 1996). It is most effective, however, with practice attempts that are easily counted. Lessons emphasizing throwing, catching, kicking, and serving a volleyball are ideal. By counting the successful and unsuccessful tries for a low- and a higher-skilled student, you can obtain a reasonably accurate estimate of their success rates. Remember, however, that 80 percent is a general target and may not be the appropriate success rate for some students. Once again, observe and get to know your students. A youngster becoming off task is often an indication that the success rate isn’t optimal and the task is either too hard or too easy.

Autonomy Supportive

In addition to creating success-oriented environments, you should try to find ways to help your students develop an intrinsic motivation for participating. This is called autonomy-supportive teaching.

Autonomy refers to a person’s sense of control. We know that students who feel autonomous during physical education are more actively engaged in learning activities and are more physically active during physical education and outside of school (Bagøien & Halvari, 2005; Halvari et al., 2009). Teachers who are autonomy supportive display many of the pedagogical skills described in this book. Providing a motivating set induction that captures student interest (chapter 6), scaffolding instruction so that students see the relevance of what they are learning (chapter 6), and developing a safe learning environment with clear protocols and rules (chapter 2) are all characteristics of autonomy-supportive teaching. To create an autonomy-supportive environment, give your students the following:

  • A variety of tasks
  • Opportunities to make decisions about the tasks
  • Feedback (private recognition and evaluation) of performance
  • Self-paced instruction and choices of tasks
  • Ways to measure personal improvement and avoid social comparisons
  • Opportunities for experimentation and self-initiation
  • Cooperative learning opportunities

An autonomy-supportive learning environment encourages students to develop a high sense of independence, thereby encouraging intrinsic motivation (Valentini & Rudisill, 2004). You can help your students build and sustain intrinsic motivation by avoiding social comparisons, both with others in the class and with externally validated norms. Avoid contests that determine who can make the most shots, do the most sit-ups, or score the most points. Discourage your students from comparing their performances with state or national fitness test norms. Rather, invite them to compare their current and past performances to recognize how they are improving and to show them that practice and hard work eventually pay off (Alderman, Beighle, & Pangrazi, 2006; Lee, 2004; Rink, 2004; Valentini & Rudisill, 2004).

Perhaps the emphasis on intrinsic motivation can best be understood when placed in the context of a popular activity such as jogging (Xiang, Chen, & Bruene, 2005). Most adults don’t start jogging because they expect to win races or set records. They jog because they feel good about improving their fitness and perhaps losing weight. If they want to, they can chart their improvement using a wearable physical activity tracker (e.g., Fitbit, pedometer, GPS device, tracking app). If they were forced to run races and have their times published in the newspaper, we suspect many would quit jogging. From time to time, however, many choose to enter races. The important point is that they choose to enter races for their own reasons. They don’t have to. Shouldn’t children and adolescents have the same choices?

There is no way to prevent students from comparing their performances with those of others. They do compare accomplishments, especially the highly skilled. Nevertheless, you can encourage students to succeed on their own by downplaying comparisons and avoiding creating competitive situations.

As with virtually any endeavor, the higher-skilled seek extrinsic motivation by comparing themselves with others, typically through competition. You can make these opportunities available, but again, only for those who choose to compete.

Tech Tips: Tracking Participation

Use pedometers, MOVbands, Sqord Boosters, or some other cost-effective tool (approximately $20-$30 each) to record student participation. MOVbands and Sqord Boosters allow students to quickly upload their movements to a website that both you and they can monitor. You can set challenges for individual students or entire classes. Sqord Boosters allow students to create avatars who grow stronger as the students increase their own activity.

Ban the Spelling Bee

One of the most blatant violations of the idea that children should be allowed to choose whether they want to compete and have their performances compared with others is the spelling bee. For the few good spellers in a class, it’s a marvelous competition. For the remainder of the students, who know they are not good spellers, not only is the spelling bee humiliating but it also publicly reinforces what they have been thinking all along: they can’t spell - and now the whole class knows it (Valentini & Rudisill, 2004). The United States has had spelling bees for years, culminating in a national competition every year in Washington, DC. Has this resulted in a nation of good spellers?

Developmentally Appropriate

A third characteristic of a motivating learning environment is that it reflects age-related and physical differences. An environment that is developmentally appropriate encourages students to work hard and remain on task (Graham et al., 1992; National Association for Sport and Physical Education [NASPE], 2009; Stork & Sanders, 1996).

As children develop, they are motivated by different opportunities and experiences. Primary-grade youngsters, for example, are eager to please the teacher and are therefore motivated by teacher praise and encouragement. Observe any kindergarten class and you will hear children saying, "Watch me! Watch me!" all day long. Furthermore, if children haven’t learned to remain in one location, teachers will continually be trailed by five-year-olds wanting them to say "Wonderful!" after every attempt they make to jump over a rope or throw a beanbag into a box.

As children grow older, the desire to please the teacher is accompanied (in some cases apparently replaced) by a desire to please their peers. They also refine their ability to distinguish between motor skill ability and effort (how hard they try) (Lee, 2004). Attention and respect from peers play an important role in the motivation of middle school youngsters. The opportunity to work in groups to design activities or solve problems is often motivating for adolescents who are interested in peer interaction. Examples include designing a game, dance, or movement sequence and making a video, perhaps to show to classmates (Valentini & Rudisill, 2004).

In addition to age-related differences (Garcia, 1994), skill level influences the type of support that is effective. Youngsters who are only minimally successful even when tasks are adjusted for them need lots of praise and encouragement to continue to work hard and to try. They also need help understanding that proficiency in motor skills requires a lot of appropriate practice (Rink, 2004).

Highly skilled students who receive satisfaction from succeeding at various tasks seem to be motivated by praise focused on the way they perform the task (sometimes the results), rather than by the fact that they are working hard. In fact, being praised for succeeding at tasks that are relatively easy for them might give highly skilled students the impression that PE is really for the poorly skilled. We believe that this occurs with many athletes who are not challenged in physical education classes. They receive a lot of praise for accomplishments that are much better than those of others in the class but that represent a relatively minimal effort on their part.


Learn more about Teaching Children and Adolescents Physical Education, Fourth Edition.

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