How (NOT) to Motivate Children

If you have children in school, you may be familiar with the “Card” system of classroom management.  At home, you may have used a token system to encourage your child to use the potty or do chores.  The goal of this article is to explain why these behavioral management systems are not helpful in the long run of your children’s lives. And what you CAN do instead.

Remember, we all do the best we can with the information we have when we have it.  SO, if YOU use a behavioral management system like this, I pray that you read with an open mind, knowing that there is NO condemnation here. And, after reading, feel free to leave your respectful comments, questions, or concerns so we can dialogue about this issue!

The Old Way

I taught kindergarten for ten glorious years before having Gabriel in 2005.  I was young, full of energy, knowledge (not much wisdom), and I absolutely LOVED every one of my students.  Although, if I am being honest, I probably “liked” the ones who behaved better a bit more 😬 .

  • Sometimes, I used a type of behavioral management system of turning the kids picture cards around. In essence, the photo of the child was facing the wall rather than the actual child 😳 . I had a first grade teacher who made us literally stand and face the wall for behavioral infractions like not following directions, talking out of turn, and so on. I have terrible memories of that.
  • Other times, I used a system in which their names were written on craft sticks. If children were being disruptive, I would remove their stick and they wouldn’t get a “reward” at the end of the day. 🤷🏻‍♀️ 
  • And then there were times I just believed that they would follow the expectations that I set forth. And, when they didn’t, I am sure used my tone and facial expressions to shame them. 🤦🏻‍♀️
  • It was all awful and demeaning. Maybe even arbitrary since a child’s behavior may have been no big deal to me yesterday. Maybe I even laughed at their antics then, but today I am tired and cranky and YOU. ARE. ON. MY. LAST. NERVE…“Turn your card!”

Of course this kind of system “worked” with children who were anxious to please…but at what cost?  How much of the “Do what I say and you get good things” led into them asking, “What am I going to get for this” before deciding whether or not to do what was expected?  Don’t we WANT children to do the right things simply because it’s the right thing to do?  And, as a Christ-Follower, I know that “doing or being GOOD” is not what saves me – it’s Jesus alone!

The New Way

I KNEW I had to find a better way.  And I did!  First, and most importantly, I began a relationship with Jesus Christ in the fall of 2006.  Secondly, I participated in several intensive trainings by Dr. Becky Bailey, creator of Conscious Discipline that planted seeds of being aware of my OWN self-control, before I could possibly expect that from anyone else. I had been researching and learning about how our brains were created and and how they worked for several years before marrying my husband Tim, soon after Gabe turned three.  We instantly became a family of five since he had four-year-old Ethan and five-year-old Mackenzie.  With the combined understanding of who I am in Christ, the guidance of my Godly husband, and what I was discovering about how our brains worked, it certainly set our young family – and my future classrooms – up for success! 

Through my relationship with Jesus, I found the security, acceptance, and love that I had always searched for – in things like my performance, appearance, or material possessions.  This made REAL to me the brain-based principles behind Conscious DisciplineI began to experience how connection really does create cooperation by building relational connections with the children in my home and in my classrooms.  We focused on saying and keeping them emotionally and physically SAFE and helping them know that (as image-bearers of God), they are worthy of being loved. 

Whether you follow Jesus or not,

You don’t need to use the unpredictable, extrinsic motivation of a Card System in your classroom or home in order for kids to follow your directions!

What our kids need – WHAT WE ALL NEED – is to develop connected relationships with others!  

An example to drive it home:

Think about the last time things were really good with your spouse: You’re snuggling on the couch, whispering sweet nothings to each other.  Then, you get up to go to the kitchen and he asks playfully, “Hey honey bear sugar lips, would you please bring me back something to drink?”  What would you do? Surely, you would be more than happy to do so!  You even ask if he would like anything else…. extra ice?  A slice of lemon? 

Now think about the last time things were NOT going so well:  You weren’t even sitting on the same couch.  You were stewing about the fact that the trash is overflowing but he said he’d take it out.  You get up to get something from the kitchen and he says, “Hey, bring me a drink.”  Would you say:  “Get it yourself!” or ask “Are your legs broken?” or would you maybe bring it but not feel real loving about it?

When you feel CONNECTED you want to COOPERATE with each other! 

It’s the same way with ALL relationships!  You are eager to be helpful, kind, thoughtful and considerate when you feel connect!  You’re not cooperating just for a prize or a sticker or even to hear “Good Job!”  You are doing it because you feel love and want to show love in return.  And that takes TIME and DEDICATION and in a lot of ways is a LOT harder than having a kid flip a card or perform something to your liking and get a sticker.   Ask yourself: Do I want my kids to just be obedient NOW?  Or do I want to make LASTING change in their behavior for their – and our – lifetimes?  Let’s build those connections that create cooperation! One way to build Connections to Create Cooperation is to make sure you are creating your B.E.S.T. time together (see video below or click here).  Be present in the moment, look into each others’ eyes, play and laugh together, hug, tickle, touch!  Make it a daily priority to have intentional “Talk Time” (you can find out more about Talk Time in these two articles: Sibling Rivalry Part 1 or Favoritism & Sibling Rivalry ) to build connections and you are going have more cooperation that flows from this connected relationship!  

Try it and comment below about how it’s going for you and your children!


Connect Point Moms helps you create stronger relational connections with the children in your life. This starts with being aware of your own stuff so you can BE PRESENT with your children in the moment you’re in, and then knowing and using the best ways to communicate with them! For quick, helpful parenting videos, find “Kate Connects” on YouTube or join our Facebook group to find encouraging, supportive moms struggling through it all together!

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