Tips for Motivating Teens

In 2010, we ran the first pilot of our program at a local Middle School. That school provided us with a group of at-risk students who were in jeopardy of dropping out. To measure the program’s effectiveness, school administration was monitoring its impact on the students’ math test scores on the state standardized test.

Shortly after the program’s conclusion, a young man approached his math teacher wanting to retake the test. He told her that, “A C was no longer good enough for him.” For this young student, the program had given the greatest gift possible: intrinsic motivation and the desire to become more.

Parents and teachers were impressed by the program results. Math test scores went up significantly. So much so that people unfamiliar with the program asked us how our math program worked. Our response was that it wasn’t a math program, but rather a program to make math more important to students.

Until we can get the switches to go off in our children, until they find their intrinsic motivation, teaching and guiding them will be like swimming upstream. When the switched has been flipped and they are engaged, empowering youth is among the most invigorating and rewarding things any of us can do.

Since 1988, we have worked directly with hundreds of thousands of teenagers from around the world. While our passion is helping them live better lives, much of our motivation behind the design of our programs has, quite honestly, come from a fear of boring them to death. Seeing a disengaged child or student in the classroom is demoralizing for parents and teachers alike.

For this reason, we have developed some techniques designed to engage youth, build their natural intrinsic motivation and get them to take an active role in their own personal development process.

Here are 3 tips for motivating teens that have become primary approaches we use in all our programs:

1 – Expand their time preference

In the early days of our work, much of our efforts were based on a study of a concept called time preference. Basically, it was a metric that measured how far into the future a young person looks when making a decision. The average teen has a time preference of 12 to 24 hours… which means they only think about the potential repercussions into the following day. It is an instant gratification mindset. When they decide whether or not to take drugs, their primary decision criteria is the likelihood of getting caught. Many students, upon deciding to drop out of school, do so because they do not want to deal with an uncomfortable circumstance like a bully or having to do homework that night.

This same study showed that if you could expand a child’s time preference, they were in more than 80% less likely to make a life-changing catastrophic decision like quitting school, committing a crime or taking illicit drugs. It is so important to get our children to think about the future and have high expectations. When we make their future valuable to them, it factors into their decision making process. If we make the future appear bright, they will undoubtedly be more engaged and make better decisions in the present.

Every chance you can, get your children or students to think about and envision their future. I would suggest having them do a vision or dream board each year. Work with them to set goals, less for the purposes of accomplishing them and more to get the kids to be positive and intentional about their future. And remember to never be a dream snatcher. When they share a goal or dream with you, embrace it, even if you believe it to be unrealistic or silly. It is the fact that they are dreaming that matters, not the content of the dream.

2 – Leverage their radical self-interest

Radical Self Interest is a term we have used for many years. At first glance, it sounds selfish and slightly negative. To some extent that’s true, but we should understand and leverage the “What is in it for me” attitude of our students… because it may be our best chance of tapping into the great power of their intrinsic motivation.

I think most of us make the mistake of trying to tell children why something is important for them. A much more powerful approach is to allow them to make the connection themselves. That takes very skillful communication and the use of open-ended questions. When you are able to get a young person to think through and then articulate the relevancy of something, they’ll have made the critical connection on their own terms.

The more we talk to our students, not as the sage on the stage, but rather the guide by their side, the more likely it will be for us to build rapport, make connections and allow them to engage in the critical dialogue that will positively shape their attitudes. There are occasions when we have to dictate things, but I can tell you that admonishment is largely ineffective with this generation. Finding a common ground, building mutual understanding and co-creating ideas and strategies will result in much greater success and more engaged students.

3 – Get into Pop Culture

For many years, we had been searching for a great counselor or coach for our children. One day, we met with a psychologist who immediately went into the discussion using the video game and the philosophical difference of a wood axe vs. a metal sword. I thought the guy was crazy until I saw something amazing happen: my child lit up and fully engaged in the conversation. Not only that, the counselor was able to effectively communicate a concept to my child (using the analogy of the video game) that my wife and I had been struggling with for over a year.

In our programs, we make heavy use of inspirational videos. The reason is because they often deliver important messages in a powerful way. They are also highly relevant. We know this because they are getting millions of views on Youtube, Facebook and other social media sites. Modern media can be a very effective pathway into the hearts and minds of our children.

As adults, we should stay connected to what our children are interested in, much of which is actually quite positive. You will find powerful lyrics in new popular songs. You will see athletes and other stars being great role models. Play video games or fantasy sports with them, and you’ll find many connections to positive messages to motivate your children. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to discover the child inside of you again.

A great mentor of mine once told me that the primary responsibility of a parent is to enable our children to survive without us. There is much truth in his statement, but I don’t want my children to just survive, I want them to thrive, and I want their lives to transcend mine. The primary driver of this is to help motivate them to find their purpose and light a fire within them to do as much as possible with this great opportunity we call life. I hope the strategies above help you to help your children find their fire within.

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