Motivating Different Child Types


The gregarious child

The autonomous child

The status-driven child

The inquisitive child

The aggressive child

The power-driven child

The recognition-driven child

The affiliation-driven child









Realistic Challenges

Absolute and Merit-Based Standards

Future Time Perspectives

Ethnic Differences in Achievement Motivation


There are some general guidelines that should be adhered to when attempting to motivate children from the eight categories.

The gregarious child – should be allowed and encouraged to interact with others. She benefits greatly from a sense of belonging and can contribute significantly to class morale and school spirit. She also enjoys cooperative learning activities and works well on committees or academic teams. Continually reinforce the idea that she is an important and valued member of the class.

The autonomous child – relishes independence and enjoys responsibility. He enjoys working on projects and doing research. He does not depend heavily upon teacher reinforcement but greatly enjoys self-correcting activities.

The status-driven child – is very aware of the feelings and attitudes of others and is easily embarrassed. His self-esteem is largely dependent upon the responses that he receives from significant others in his life and he has difficult evaluating his own performance or strengths. He needs a teacher who is enthusiastic and who celebrates children’s unique strengths and affinities.

The inquisitive child – is curious and enjoys problem solving and research. She needs to be shown that learning is an ongoing process and that most “new” information is related in some way to previously learned material (p. 111). She also may benefit from a curriculum that is relevant to her daily life. Help this child to establish personal goals, and then continually reestablish these goals as she makes progress.

The aggressive child – wants to have her opinions and feelings heard. Give her an opportunity to express her opinions, and solicit her ideas on occasion. Use her suggestions and commend her for her contributions. She enjoys problem solving and is often quite adept at analyzing and resolving issues and situations. Remain mindful that her need for power and control is a very real need. Avoid power struggles and allow her to make choices and decisions whenever possible. The adult should assist the child in converting her aggressiveness into assertiveness that is more socially appropriate and acceptable.

The power-driven child – needs control and influence over the activities and goals of the class. If he is deprived of power, he will seek less appropriate venues to gain control (disruption, challenging authority). He will be very responsive to responsibility. Foster his leadership skills and ask him for input about the class curriculum.

The recognition-driven child – has a strong need to be recognized for her strengths and abilities. She benefits from receiving immediate feedback and is very sensitive to criticism, reprimands, and nagging. She often is highly self-critical and can become distraught over insignificant failures or errors. She will respond well to awards, certificates, and public recognition.

The affiliation-driven child – wants to be identified with a collective entity and will also respond well to academic teams and cooperative learning. He wants to be identified with adults and will respond very well to a teacher’s self-disclosures (e.g., discussing family during class activities). He needs to feel that you know him and enjoy his company.



Every child has a unique pattern of forces that motivate him. Quite simply, a motivational technique that inspires a child may be totally ineffective with that child’s classmate (p. 112). Just as we tailor instructional methods to meet the academic needs of students, we must also use a variety of motivational techniques in order to reach and teach the children in our classes.

The following is the Maslow research translated into six sets of teaching strategies that are designed to emphasize the motivational drives for each individual child. For example, the autonomous child will respond well to projects and prestige strategies. The recognition-driven child will respond more positively to strategies involving praise and prizes.

The following motivational approaches are aligned with each of the motivational styles that were outlined earlier:

  • Projects – motivate the autonomous or inquisitive child
  • People – motivate the gregarious or affiliation-driven child
  • Praise – motivates the status-driven or recognition-driven or affiliation-driven child
  • Prizes – motivate the status-driven or recognition-driven or affiliation-driven or power-driven child
  • Prestige – motivates the autonomous or status-driven or aggressive or power-driven child
  • Power – motivates the power-driven or autonomous or aggressive child (p. 113).



Emotions are feelings with thoughts incidentally attached. – David Hume

Realistic Challenges

There are many individuals and events that can lay claim to the beginnings of the scientific investigation of achievement motivation. The key to sustained involvement in learning requires that a realistic match be established between the individual’s present capabilities and the demands of the achievement task. This point is well illustrated in an experiment conducted by Charles Woodson (1975) who created varying degrees of match and mismatch between student ability levels and the difficulty of an upcoming school test.

Those students who experienced a close match (i.e., high ability, difficult test; or low ability, easy test) learned the most, and this was true for both bright and less bright students. On the other hand, a mismatch interfered with learning at all ability levels, but for different reasons.  Those more able students who competed against easy standards became bored, while those less able students from whom too much was required simply gave up when they failed to deliver.

 Absolute and Merit-Based Standards

Research has proven the importance of setting achievement goals for oneself. When students set their own goals, they usually challenge the upper limits of their capabilities and not beyond, thereby assuring that success is always within reach and never in short supply. Moreover, these self-generated goals remained a more or less constant target until the individual achieved them. For this reason we can refer to self-defined goals as constant or “absolute” in nature.

They can be distinguished from achievement goals that are defined in relative terms, that is, by comparing one’s achievements relative to those of one’s peers. In this latter case, the measure of success is constantly (p. 30) changing, and as a result always depends not only on how well the individual does, but also on how well others do, something over which the individual learner has little control.

Another yardstick for measuring success involves teachers, not students, in setting the standards. Here success is merit-based, that is, anyone who attains a goal set by the teacher merits a reward. There are many real-life examples of merit-based achievement goals outside the laboratory. Consider, for example, the Boy Scout who is working for a merit badge in photography. Any number of merit badges can be awarded because success does not depend on doing better than others, but on completing a specific set of requirements satisfactorily. The struggle to achieve success in this case focuses on the obstacles imposed by the requirements of the task itself, and on the varying levels of excellence required, not on individuals competing against one another for diminishing rewards.

Motivationally speaking, absolute standards are invaluable because they foster a positive interpretation of failure, should it occur (Kennedy & Willcutt, 1964). When students expect to be held to a well-defined standard of performance, and not simply expected to outperform others, the failure to attain the prevailing standards tends to motivate students to try harder next time. In this case failure implies falling short of a goal, whereas competing with others and failing implies falling short as a person!

Absolute goals also provide built-in criteria for gauging one’s progress, or lack of it, and for judging when one’s work is finished or still incomplete. Unfortunately, in competition one’s work is never done, unless of course one drops out. The structure that absolute standards provided is especially important for anxiety-prone students who, in the absence of clear, unambiguous guidelines for success often think the worst of themselves, no matter how well they perform (Wiggins, 1989) (p. 30)

 Setting one’s own achievement goals, and altering them as necessary, puts individuals in control of their own successes and failures as aspirations increase ahead of current achievement levels, but not so far ahead that temporary goals cannot be reached and surpassed through persistent effort and practice. Accordingly, students feel in control as their own progression is challenged to perform at current maximums (Covington, 1996). Judgments about success and failure, as well as feelings of confidence or despair and optimism versus pessimism, are all creatures of a subjective world of the individual’s own making (Carver & Scheier, 1986).

Truth and falsity aside, reality has little standing here. What counts are beliefs and appearances. By shifting one’s aspirations, even slightly, students can create a new round of successes or plunge themselves into a downward, irreversible spiral of failure. However, the expectations of others, including parents and teachers, set limits on the freedom of children to maneuver. The finely tuned balance of successes offsetting failures enjoyed by Hoppe’s subjects can quickly be overturned if individuals accept as their own the inappropriate standards imposed by others.

But, then, there may be little choice. In a competitive environment there is continual pressure on students to raise their aspirations, irrespective of their ability and past performance, and often severe sanctions against lowering them. Aspirations represent (p. 31) a compromise between two opposing tendencies, one involving the need to strive for something better and the other, the need to avoid repeated failure.

This suggests that the ability to plan is a part of motivation and that motives are actually just plans by a different name. Teaching students to be more planful will actually enhance their willingness to learn, and for the right reasons. Also, believing that oneself is (p. 43) in personal control of future events (as contrasted to feeling like a pawn) – is the key to all noteworthy achievements.

Ellen Skinner and her colleagues (Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990) explain it this way:

“When children believe that they can exert control over success in school, they perform better. . . And, when children succeed in school, they are more likely to view school performance as a controllable outcome. . . . children who are not doing well in school will perceive themselves as having no control over academic successes and failures and these beliefs will subsequently generate performances that serve to confirm their beliefs” (p. 22).

Paul Pintrich (1988; 1989) and his colleagues (Eccles, 1983; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990) propose three factors essential to task involvement, which are also linked to realistic goal setting and to the effective monitoring of one’s plans:

  1. An expectancy factor, which includes beliefs about one’s ability to perform successfully (“Can I do this task?”) – what James Connell (1985) calls “capacity” beliefs;
  2. A value component, which includes the reasons for being involved (in other words, “Why am I doing this?” or ”Of what importance is this to me?”); and
  3. An emotional component (”How do I feel about this task?”).

Failure-oriented students will perform just as well or are just as willing to perform as are success-oriented students in specific situations (See: Academic Behavior). All students will be aroused or not depending on the attractiveness and expectation of attaining the goal. All persons will be motivated if there is a reasonable chance that they will get something they want.

Likewise, as the expectation of achieving a desired goal – like doing well on a test – decreases, so will the individual’s efforts to attain it, even though the goal may actually become more attractive because of its elusiveness. This reflects the fact that inaction does not necessarily mean a student is unmotivated. In fact, students can be highly motivated, but if there is no opportunity to do well it does not matter how available, easy or attractive a goal may be it will be ignored.

The success-oriented student is not attracted to goals for which success is guaranteed. Although people rarely tire of success, it is not the “easy victory” that fully motivates us: as human beings, we quickly become bored with the sure thing. This is especially true of success-oriented persons. For them the attraction of achieving comes from the prospect of overcoming a manageable (p. 40) challenge in which there is some risk of failing. The optimal level of challenge is in the intermediate range – namely setting one’s goals just high enough to provide some satisfaction should she succeed, but not so high that success is unlikely. By comparison, we would expect success-oriented individuals to lose interest quickly in exceedingly difficult assignments, and to reject altogether a simple assignment as unworthy.

In contrast, in the context of fear the risk-taking preferences of failure-avoiding individuals the attractiveness of a task is defined in negative terms – how noxious failure will be if it occurs. From this perspective, the easy assignment is preferred because the chances of failure are low and the anticipation of shame is minimized. Hence, in theory at least, it appears that failure-avoiding individuals are the exception to our observation that humans shun the certainty of a sure thing. By similar reasoning, very difficult assignments should also prove attractive to failure-avoiding individuals because no one feels very bad when they fail at a task for which the odds against success are exceedingly long.

These predictions have received broad empirical support. For example, in one ring-toss experiment McClelland (1958) found that kindergarten children as well as third graders rated high in achievement motivation more often set their aspirations in the middle range of difficulty. They also pitched the rings from modest distances. On the other hand, children low in achievement motivation tended to make extreme choices, either standing right on top of the pegs to ensure success or so far away that success was virtually impossible.

Future Time Perspectives

 R. Nuttin and Willy Lens (Nuttin, 1984; Nuttin & Lens, 1985) argue that one’s future goals and especially one’s subjective notions of time are the basic motivational space within which all humans operate. Professor Lewin (1948) anticipated this same point years earlier when he remarked that “the setting (p. 41) of goals is closely related to time perspective – the goal of an individual includes his expectations for the future, his wishes, and his daydreams” (p. 113).

In effect, people translate their needs and desires into specific time-bound goals. Some goals involve satisfaction in the near term, as, for example, when one anticipates the taste of a candy bar as the wrapper is being removed; other goals involve planning within an intermediate time frame, as when a child begins saving his weekly allowance for ice skates next winter; and yet other goals like becoming a physician can preoccupy one’s attention for years, even decades. In addition to this time hierarchy, goal striving can be distinguished by the number of intervening subtasks or steps that must be completed successfully on the way to a goal – a kind of task hierarchy (Raynor, 1969; Raynor & Entin, 1982). Thus future time perspective can be characterized by its extension or length, and by its density (the number of steps in a certain future time interval).

According to Lens, success-oriented individuals aspire to more complicated, distant goals than do failure-threatened individuals (DeVolder & Lens, 1982), and they are highly adept at arranging small steps of intermediate difficulty so that the chances of moving successfully from one to another, like stepping-stones, are good. A special characteristic of such plans, what Joel Raynor (1982) calls “partially contingent paths,” is also the province of success-oriented persons. Here success in a step guarantees the opportunity to continue, but failure has no direct bearing on future striving. This is because success-oriented persons are forever hedging their bets by having backup plans. They also entertain alternative goals should the original objective prove impossible to reach.


Ethnic Differences in Achievement Motivation

Initially, investigators paid little attention to ethnic differences in achievement motivation, because the early research found the entrepreneurial spirit of Hermes among a wide range of cultural groups including the Japanese, Israelis, Europeans, and East Indians (Biaggio, 1978; Hayashi, Rim, & Lynn, 1970; Singh, 1977). But what was not fully appreciated at the time was that most of these groups either came from cultures that held values similar to those of middle-class Americans or were recent immigrants to America – the so-called immigrant minorities. These groups share little in common with American-born caste-like minorities who according to John Ogbu (1978) were incorporated originally into our society against their will: Mexican Americans through colonization of the Southwest Territories, Puerto Ricans following the American take-over from Spain, blacks through slavery, and American Indians through the dispossession of their tribal lands. These groups were relegated by virtue of-birth to the lower rungs of the economic ladder and were traditionally exploited as cheap labor.

What about the need achievement patterns of these so-called caste-like groups? Black Americans typically score lower on traditional need achievement measures than do white Americans (Adkins, Payne, & Ballif, 1972; Cooper & Tom, 1984; Graham, 1984a). Native Americans and Spanish-speaking Hispanics and Latinos also exhibit these same reduced patterns (Ramirez & Price-Williams, 1976; Sanders, Scholz, & Kagan, 1976). Does this mean that black and Hispanic students lack the need to achieve? No, it is not a matter of a deficiency, but of how the need to achieve is expressed. Achievement differences among ethnic groups are reflected in the different goals to which they aspire. This emphasis on differential goals explains why only westerners are so intent on climbing Mount Everest. As an achievement goal this conquest is irrelevant to the Tibetans and Nepalese who live around Everest (Maehr & Nicholls, 1980).

Research indicates that, like Hispanic American children, black Americans also favor achievement goals that benefit their families (as opposed to individual benefits) and from which they would gain family recognition (Castenell, 1983; Ramirez & Price-Williams, 1976). As one example, researchers assessed the meaning of some six hundred concepts among adolescent males from some thirty language groups’ worldwide (Fyans, Maehr, Salili, & Desai, 1983). Terms like “independence,” ”competition,” and “hard work” were (p. 46) most closely associated with notions of success among white Americans and West Germans. These same terms were least salient for black Americans. Instead, for many of these latter youngsters, the most prominent associations with feelings of success were “family,” ”cooperation,” and “tradition.” Finally, not only were terms like “competition” and “champion” less salient in the  minds of black students – words that represent major preoccupations among most middle-class whites – but, worse yet, for blacks they were often associated with feelings of failure and defeat, and sometimes even with images of death! These findings suggest why some minority groups are placed at particular risk in school.

First, for many youngsters the primary goals to which they aspire – assuming adult work roles and caring for others – lie outside the more traditional realm of academics, which favors competition and autonomy. As a result, these goals are not particularly honored or encouraged in many schools.

Second, given the mainstream emphasis on competitive values, and on the scramble for improved social status, minority students are being deprived of their preferred means to achieve their objectives, which is through cooperation, sharing, and close social cohesion. Finally, to make things even worse, these youngsters must play by competitive rules, if they are to play at all – rules that are often alien, frightening, and confusing. Given these handicaps, we should not be surprised by the shocking rate of school dropouts found in the ghettos and barrios of America.

The larger policy implications of this research seem clear. Schools must arrange learning so that it encourages more varied achievement goals than the narrow set of values often associated with competitive excellence and high standardized test scores at all costs. Also, alternative ways for attaining excellence – for the sake of the group, for tradition, and for honor, must be respected. Moreover, these changes must be made without doing violence to the fundamental academic mission of all schooling, that of providing students with the subject matter skills necessary to thrive, not merely survive. Students must not be asked to give up their cultural and ethnic identities in the process of reform (p. 46).

Scholars have now moved from viewing ethnic differences in achievement motivation as a matter of inferiority for some groups, and superiority for others, to seeing the issue in terms of diversity. Deficiency explanations are generally unsatisfactory because they divert attention from one constant feature of underachievement among ethnic minorities, that is, the inability of the educational system to take account of the particular needs of these children. As Dennis McInerney (1988) points out, “When educators place the blame for minority children’s poor achievement on factors for which the school cannot be held responsible, particularly such factors as children’s innate lack of ability, or inappropriate cognitive style, then there is little perceived need for major alteration in the organizational structure or policies in school” (p. 33).

Findings such as these, embracing as they do ethnic considerations, child-rearing practices, and peer dynamics, illustrate the complex challenges that confront educators. Effective reform is never easy. So many cross-cutting issues must be dealt with. Nonetheless, one overarching observation emerges from these findings. The mission of schools will be best served, motivationally speaking, if we modify the rules of the learning game so that teachers and students become allies, not adversaries, with teachers acting as coaches, mentors, and resources for students as they prepare for their futures (p. 51).