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How to Inspire Students to Do What’s Right

Every teacher, coach, employer and parent wants to influence their young people to do what they know is right. Far too often, however, we merely emulate what our parents did with us, as we grew up. We tell them they “ought to” do the right thing. The problem is, ideas like “ought to” and “should” often feel negative. For centuries, in our quest to build a sense of responsibility in our students, we’ve used “duty” or “guilt” motivation. Let’s be honest—it doesn’t work well. Sometimes poor choices feel pleasurable at the time and good choices often feel unrewarding in the moment. Further, a sense of duty develops later in many students.

So, I want to suggest how we can best lead and influence them.

Moving from Obligation to Inspiration

photo credit: City of Seattle Community Tech Teacher Helping Students Working At Computers In Classroom via photopin (license)

Our 21st century society is shrewd to persuasion tactics. Kids are savvy and privy to all things coercive. They’ve Googled everything under the sun. So, it seems odd to students when they hear us attempt to persuade them with:

  • You should study harder in school.
  • It’s time for piano practice.
  • I need you to do your chores.
  • I want you to go to church more regularly.
  • You ought to do your homework before dinner.

Too often, it falls on deaf ears. Young people just don’t respond to guilt motivation like past generations did. Obligation and duty aren’t what they used to be.

So, why not move from “obligation” to “inspiration?”

In 2013, author and professor of consumer behavior, Brian Wansink performed a simple experiment to discover what best motivates kids today.

On Halloween night, he placed a bowl of apples on a doorstep next to a bowl of candy. In between them, a sign read: “You ought to take an apple.” After a large sampling of trick-or-treaters visited, Dr. Wansink found the vast majority of kids took the candy. Only 9 percent took an apple. (Probably because parents were watching). The outcome was predictable. Children love candy.

Once the sign was changed, however, nearly half the kids took an apple. It was a measurable difference. Over five times as many kids took the fruit. What did the new sign say? It simply read:

What would Batman eat?”

Instead of communicating “obligation,” the message was about “inspiration.” It was an appeal to the child’s aspiration: I want to be like Batman. This is what life-giving leaders do. Their messages can influence because they speak to the heart and hope of their young listeners. They tie inspiration to aspiration. What’s more, the older the student is, the more effective leaders tend to focus on outcomes more than inputs.

What This Looks Like

In our everyday life, what if we chose to influence through inspiration—not obligation?

1. Rather than tell our students to study harder for school, what if we said:

“Where do you think you’d go to college if you got that full scholarship?”

2. Rather than tell students they should practice their instrument responsibly, say:

“I’ve seen great musicians—and with practice, you’d be as good as they are.”

3. Rather than coerce students to prepare for a classroom test, teachers could say:

“Let’s make this fun. I want you to help each other get ready for the exam.”

4. Rather than tell your child she ought to eat nutritional foods, what if you told her:

“I’d love you to help me shop for groceries, and pick out some healthy foods for our family. For every ‘fun’ item we choose, let’s add one that’s good for us.”

The keys to shifting the way we influence and motivate students are:

  • Express belief in the student.
  • Cast vision for a desired outcome.
  • Ask questions that appeal to their aspirations…

This actually inspires students to grow.

Feeling a sense of duty and obligation will come with time, especially if you’re inspiring students to do what’s right today.


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