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Motivating People in Positive Ways

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed

This article is copy protected and should only be reproduced by permission of the author. For information contact me at: .

     Some people have been described as stubborn, non-compliant, and resistive. They simply can't or won't do what you want them to do. It's frustrating, aggravating, and annoying when you say the same things over and over and there is little or no reaction from the person to whom you are talking.

     Have you ever encountered this dilemma?

     I would like to discuss the dynamics of how people can succeed in motivating others in day-to-day routines. This may involve getting a child ready for school in the morning. It may concern training skills that could lead to employment opportunities, or it may affect reducing an inappropriate behavior such as the use of verbal or physical aggression when an individual gets frustrated by conditions in their environment.

     We all know that we don't like to be yelled at or pushed into doing something we don't want to do. We don't respond well to pressure to comply when we don't understand why we have to do certain things. This is human nature.

     As care providers, teachers, and parents, the role of motivating an individual can sometimes seem next to impossible. You get that blank stare, a rolling of the eyes, or worse, you find yourself being physically attacked by the person refusing to comply. What are your options? How can you make peace without giving up on the effort to move someone toward a new or improved set of behaviors or skills or away from some bad habits?

First, and foremost you must develop two primary conditions:

      1) A non-threatening atmosphere in your approach to motivating.

     If you have previously encountered problems with your attempts to move someone toward accomplishing certain tasks, it is not uncommon for either you or the other person to have become upset by the process. The individual you are providing care or training to might have reacted in a totally passive way. They may have reacted by retreating from the situation. They may have become agitated, even aggressive.

     If you have found yourself losing your temper and raising your voice, physically trying to lead the other person through the task, or punishing the non-compliant individual for their behavior, you must rethink your approach. In some cases, this may be difficult because hurt feelings may stand in the way of future interactions. However, starting from scratch does not necessarily mean that you are loosing ground. In fact, if you have come to an impasse, it is the only direction that makes sense.

     For a period of time you might consider backing off of your demands altogether. Find opportunities in your routine to engage in positive activities, which you know are non-threatening. Finding preferred activities or special rewards such as going out for a soda or allowing the individual to spend "free time" outside can be useful later on in the process. (I will elaborate on planning training opportunities later in this article.) Make yourself available in these activities when possible to instill a sense of trust.

     You don't want to fall into the trap of being the "good buddy" all the time, of course. And you certainly will not want to allow the individual to just do "whatever they want " all the time. Keep to the structure of their routine as much as possible. Use supportive phrases such as "Nice work," or "I like the way you did that," during the routine, even if they have successfully been doing the tasks for quite a while already. This builds self-esteem and confidence to do other new things in the future.

     2) Establish a buy-in from the individual you are working with -

     Whenever you can see the benefit from doing something, the motivation to doing it increases. You must pass this sense of wanting to accomplish the task on to the person you are trying to motivate.

     Again, this boils down to building self-esteem and a feeling of "I can do it" in the individual. Reminding a student how they were able to learn to count to ten will pave the way towards counting to twenty.

     Doing something without the help of others can be its own reward. Tasks like dressing or bathing, getting to the bus on time for school or work can lead to greater independence down the line. Spend quality time with the person, (not when the task needs to be done, but before or after), and talk about the value of self-sufficiency. Talk about the future, if the individual can grasp the concept of independent living or being more "grown up". Let them know that what they learn today will lend itsself to becoming more responsible as an individual. Present them with examples of others who have succeeded in making this happen. This can also be done through reading stories about others who have learned to do things for themselves. Instill the concept of setting goals, reasonable goals that can be accomplished over time.

Planning Training Activities

     It is of vital importance that we plan ahead when we want to provide a means for others to do new things. This means prioritizing what needs to be done first and the steps leading to successful achievement.

     1) Setting Goals

     It is easy to overwhelm anyone with too many new things to do at once. For a given period of time, say six months, decide what you want to focus on in your training schedule. This could include improving behaviors or teaching new skills. As a rule of thumb I consider 5 goals to be more than enough. You must decide what is most important now and what can be done at a later time.

     A common problem arises when there are many things about an individual you want to change. They need constant prompting to pick up dirty clothes, wash the dishes, get to school on time, go to the bathroom without being told, and so on. You may find yourself following the person around all day nagging about their shortcomings in many aspects of the daily routine. This is counterproductive. In most cases you will have to be patient and ignore some, if not most of these limitations. By being selective in this way you reduce the potential for confrontation dramatically. You also will be able to clarify what the person you are working with needs to be responsible for in order to establish the buy-in mentioned above.

     By predetermining goals you also have a clear idea of what you must do to prepare for the training activities and when they will be scheduled into the daily routine.

     2) Create a Task Analysis

     Breaking a skill into small parts for training will go a long way towards getting it accomplished. This is sometimes known as doing a "task analysis".

     Once you have decided on a few things you would like to see the other person do, look at the steps that will need to be taken to learn the skills involved. Let's say you want a person to brush their teeth every morning. A task analysis would look something like this:

     a. Get toothbrush, cup, and toothpaste

     b. Go to sink

     c. Open toothpaste tube

     d. Fill cup with water

     e. Put paste on brush

     f. Brush front of teeth, (up and down)

     g. Spit out excess toothpaste

     h. Brush back of teeth

     i. Spit out excess toothpaste

     j. Rinse with water

     k. Put cap back on toothpaste

     l. Dry face with hand towel

     m. Put away supplies

     This gives you a set of guidelines and a checklist to determine progress. Now there are two ways you can approach this task. One called "forward chaining" and one called "backward chaining". All that this means is that you either start at the beginning or the end of the sequence.

      In forward chaining you start by only working on the first step in the sequence, giving positive feedback or other rewards for its accomplishment. As each step is learned, you add another step to be the focus of the activity. By focusing on one step at a time and assisting with or completing the other steps yourself, you can maximize your opportunities to compliment the individual on their success.

     Backward chaining just means you do everything except the last step of the series and give reinforcement for its accomplishment alone. Again, once a step has been mastered, focus on the proceeding step until you make your way to the top of the list.

     Forward or backward chaining often depends on the individual's willingness, or lack thereof, to begin the task independently. If they tend to begin a task but get frustrated halfway through, use forward chaining. If they are likely to resist beginning the task, provide the needed assistance until the last step, then say, "Now you finish." The motivation for getting the task over with will often be enough to initiate some action on their part.

     3) Have all necessary materials and support available when the task begins.

     If you can provide a clear-cut experience without delays or confusion, this will enhance the learning experience. For instance, if you are asking someone to take out the trash but the outside trashcan is full or it has been moved to a different location, confusion will often lead to frustration. As a trainer, it will be up to you to make sure that everything needed to accomplish the task will be there at hand. This may take some extra effort on your part but will pay off in the long run. Spend extra time in the beginning demonstrating how to do the task yourself. Give simple directions and provide a visual checklist, if possible, with words or pictures to cue the steps.

     4) Use positive reinforcement

     I mentioned above that praise is an excellent way to motivate. Use kind words frequently during a task but save most of the praise for the step you are focusing on and the final completion of the task itself.

     You may wish to consider asking the person if they would like to do or have some special reward if they accomplish the task. This also gives you an edge in the process. If they have something to look forward to, the task is more likely to be completed. Know the individual well enough to provide preferred items or activities. And have these things on hand immediately after the task has been completed. This is very important. Do not promise something for the next day or that may be unavailable. Giving a reward needs to be done as soon after the task is completed as possible in order to complete the experience in a positive way.

     5) Scheduling

     It is important to work your goals into the natural routine of the day. This will insure that later they will become commonplace and remembered. Scheduling is also important in giving you prior knowledge as to when you have to have things ready for the training process, including your own availability. Also consider that some individuals will be more likely to do something if it can be done when they feel they are ready.


     If you are now considering taking a step back from your current approach, this is good. Hopefully, you will have a better understanding of what you wish to accomplish and when your efforts will be more likely to succeed. As rapport is established you may want to restart your training in a non-threatening way.

     Be sure to spend some time discussing your expectations and listening or looking for possible roadblocks, which may present themselves. Remind yourself and the other individual that this is a team effort. If you are engaging in a task such as cleaning a room, work with him or her as a partner, knowing that people often learn best from example.

     Other tips I would add:

     Give reminders ahead of time that a task will be coming up, (in "five minutes", 30"minutes", or "an hour" depending on their understanding of time and the need for transition time). If you can use a personal schedule or indicate the start time on a clock, do so. Digital alarm clocks and kitchen timers, come in handy for this process. This will lead to a greater chance of self-initiation of the task later on down the line.

     If a person is refusing to do something, tell them that they have five or ten minutes to "get ready".

     Remind them of their reward for finishing the task at the beginning of the session, (if this is part of your plan).

     Don't repeat directions without allowing a little time for the individual to absorb the information and act on it, (often referred to as "lag time").

     Keep directions simple! Two to three word phrases will have a better chance of being acted on than a lecture about the task ahead.

     Don't engage in arguments about the task. Ignore whining behavior while indicating your readiness to "help out" if needed.

     Try to stay positive, but if you find yourself getting frustrated, step back for a comfortable period, regain your composure, and then begin again.

     All my best, Michael S.True

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