Going to the Heart of Principle 7

03.18.2021 ,

By David Streight, author: Breaking Into the Heart of Character


Of the 11 Principles, Principle 7 (“The school fosters students’ self-motivation”) has always struck me as essential infrastructure: without it, to my mind, the other principles lose much of their meaning. Acts of kindness that don’t come from the heart—that are not internally motivated—are not manifestations of character.


The problem is not with the principle but with what’s missing in its explanation. It’s the “how:” how do we help students develop intrinsic motivation? Principle 7’s suggestion to “encourage students” just isn’t enough. A half-century of research has been documenting the “how” for making motivation more intrinsic; the process is clear, it doesn’t cost a cent, it doesn’t take any more time, and it’s as relevant to internalizing motivation for character as it is to academic motivation. So this information is essential.


Three facts are evident:

  • When students feel that something is of value, that it’s useful, they are more likely to engage for “inner” reasons.
  • When students feel coerced, inner motivation decreases.
  • The more students sense “I am capable of doing this,” the more intrinsic their motivation will be.


Those facts are key elements in research literature on Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2017). The theory has demonstrated that students young or old, around the world, are healthier, happier, and more internally motivated (and, more successful) to the extent that we foster their sense of competence (the third bullet, above) and their sense of autonomy (the first two bullets). A third element in SDT—a sense of relationship, of belonging—plays an important but less visible role in motivation, but is essential in character education for other reasons, as Principle 4 tells us.


Putting the three elements together: if students feel they belong at school, that they belong with, and to, the adults and peers in their lives; if students feel like they are capable, and that they are learning the social, emotional, and academic skills (competence) they need to keep from feeling embarrassed or incompetent; and if students feel like adults are fostering their autonomy—their power of “self-determination,” their sense of being empowered to become capable individuals in their own right—then they tend much more willingly to act both for their own positive growth and for the benefit of the community. The more they feel self-directed, the more positive the results.


So let’s go back to my “how” question. How do you, as a teacher, foster students’ self-motivation? I’ll save relationship/belonging for another post, should the opportunity arise, and focus here on the two elements more directly involved in actually moving motivation from extrinsic to increasingly intrinsic.


If you’ve heard terms like “voice,” “choice,” and “empowerment” in character education or social-emotional learning circles, that’s autonomy talk. The autonomy that internalizes motivation is not “let kids do whatever they want whenever they want.” Rather, it’s helping young people “buy into” what they’re doing, helping them understand the rationale, and feel that their actions are genuine, genuinely theirs. One way you can support autonomy is with wording like “we have things we need to at school, just like in life outside school, and I want my students to feel like they are doing these things not so much because they have to, as because they see there are reasons—sometimes very good reasons—for what needs to be done.” Here are some specific, research-proven ways to foster a sense of autonomy:


  • Diminish the use of controlling language and demeanor. Instead, use an informational, supportive approach. Not “because I said so,” but “this might help you.”
  • Help students understand the “rationale” behind what needs to be done, the reasons why something might be important to learn.
  • Help connect students’ personal interests to what needs to be learned.
  • Solicit, invite, and welcome opinions. Especially be receptive to expressions of frustration or disagreement (teach the skill of expressing these feelings appropriately).
  • Offer choice, when possible.


The second element so key to internalizing motivation is competence. We foster competence in children through their experiences with success in learning new skills; especially success right at their level of challenge! Competence is achieved when we feel confident in our abilities to meet and overcome new challenges. For teachers at school, this means teaching and strengthening character and relationship skills, and fostering confidence in their usefulness. Encouragement does not bring about students’ self-motivation, but it can help increase students’ competence, especially if the person encouraging is someone with whom a student has a warm and supportive relationship.


Let me offer an example of a practice that helps internalize motivation, before closing with a word to discourage rewards for motivation. Schools across North America are increasingly turning to restorative practices in lieu of punishment. Why? Because restorative practices work! They help us meet our goals for better behavior and a positive school culture. First, their focus is on building and maintaining relationships. Second, restorative practices respect, and foster, the autonomy of all parties concerned. Look at autonomy in the debriefing questions for a “harm-doing” student typically used by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (Costello, Wachter, & Wachter, 2009):


  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done, and how?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?


Notice the respect given to this individual who, in many schools, would have been sent to the vice-principal’s office and given some kind of “consequences.” Restorative practices offer the opportunity to reflect, un-pressured, on what happened, and even to suggest a way to repair whatever physical or social damage was caused. Restorative practices offer space for student “voice.” Notice that the harm-doer here is not deciding on his or her fate; rather, he or she is offered a “say” in whatever ensues. In so doing, the child in question—and indeed all involved in this particular restorative intervention—are increasing their competence by learning new and important skills for one of life’s greatest challenges: interpersonal problem solving/conflict resolution.


Finally, a word about the negative impact of rewards for motivation. I was disappointed to read an earlier post at Character.org where the author attempted to make a case for use of extrinsic motivators. The “case” used two references: one based on a study a quarter century earlier, in which [only] one school found no negative outcome when using extrinsic motivators. The other reference cited was actually a review of scholarly literature on the subject, in which the author noted: “rewards usually have a detrimental impact on young students’ learning and behavior” (Theodotou, 2014). This “usual detrimental impact” is why the 11 Principles discourage extrinsic rewards in the first place. This detrimental impact on intrinsic motivation is so well documented that, barring occasional extraneous cases, little has been written to support rewards since 2001, when internationally known scholars “reconsidered once again” the subject of “Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education” and illustrated the harmful consequences (Deci, Koestner, and Ryan, 2001). Why their negative impact? Because rewards are usually felt to be “controlling” and thus the opposite of autonomy-supportive. People who care about our welfare and want us to learn or to behave in certain ways, show us this by encouraging, by supporting, by explaining importance, and by helping us value the subject at hand.


Every teacher should focus on filling students’ basic psychological needs for belonging, autonomy, and competence. The more teachers embrace the evidence-based practices that foster internal motivation, the more their students will begin to feel their actions and behaviors are genuinely their own. That’s when Principle 7 will really show its power.



Costello, B., Wachtel, J., and Wachtel, T. (2009). The Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians, and Administrators. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: International Institute for Restorative Practices.

 Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. (2001) Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 1, pp. 1-27.

 Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

 Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

 Theodotou, E. (2014). Early years education: are young students intrinsically or extrinsically motivated towards school activities? A discussion about the effects of rewards on young children’s learning. Research in Teacher Education. 4, 17-21.