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How to Motivate a Child When They Really Don't Want to do Anything

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Ever had children just flat our refuse to engage in anything you ask them to? Even when you know they enjoy doing it? Sometimes it can be extremely difficult to motivate a child, and it can be even more complex if a child has additional support needs. Motivation is what drives us to do the things we do. It is the reason why we work hard, make goals, and strive to be good people. Sometimes, what motivates a child when they have ADHD or autism is different from what would typically motivate their peers.

Types of Motivation

Basically, we are either motivated by how something makes us feel, or we’re motivated by what we can physically gain by doing something.

Intrinsic Motivation

This is when you are motivated by internal events. In other words, you are motivated because you will feel good or you enjoy doing whatever it is. Some other examples of intrinsic motivation include;

  • Feeling like you fit in with others

  • Share experiences

  • Receiving recognition from others, especially those they respect (parents, teachers, peers)

  • They want to learn more

  • It is generally an enjoyable activity, it's fun, interesting or entertaining

Intrinsic motivation is usually what works best for neurotypical children, however for children who have ADHD or are autistic, they may not find these motivators as effective.

Extrinsic Motivation

This is when you are motivated by external rewards or incentives. Some things that often work for children are;

  • Physical contact (a hug, pat on the back)

  • Non-verbal recognition (Thumbs up, head nod)

  • Verbal praise and recognition

  • Extra time for other activities

  • Physical reinforcers (stickers, pocket money, marbles)

Some children don’t find external rewards (or reinforcers) motivating either. In fact, students with ASD might not be able to understand or tolerate (due to sensory concerns) many of these extrinsic motivators.

Individualise Motivation

As we have explored many times, the better you know a child and their individual profile, the better you will be able to customise your support plan to their exact needs. Children with ADHD or those who are autistic are usually most motivated by their special interests.

Using motivators is a great strategy for enticing the exploration of new activities and demands. If these motivators can be tied to their special interest, children are far more likely to complete a task when asked or to explore something new that they otherwise may have avoided due to anxiety.

Motivators can be anything. It could be;

  • A physical toy a child likes

  • Access to a compute/iPad to research their special interest

  • Edible treat (ideally not sweets all the time)

  • Opportunity to talk about their special interest

  • Opportunity to participate in an activity linked to their special interest

Keep motivators on hand at all times - you never know when you might need them.

Why is Motivation Important?

Getting and keeping a child motivated is important because;

  • Children who are autistic aren't often intrinsically motivated to learn or participate in social activities

  • Learning social skills is an essential skill and using motivators will help facilitate this learning

  • You need motivation to get essential things done - teeth brushing, getting dressed, completing homework etc

  • Engaging in new activities will help broaden skillsets and horizons

  • New activities help develop adaptation skills and can facilitate communication


This is an example from one of my classes. In this case, this child's special interest was Pokemon. Some of the ways we motivated him were;

  • Tin of cards. He would get the opportunity to pick a card any time he completed a difficult task or one he previously refused to engage in. For more difficult or challenging situations, there'd be shiny cards available.

  • Colouring. We'd print off colouring pages of various Pokemon and keep them with 'special' crayons/pens that he would only use as a motivator

  • Surprise toy box. A box full of mini Pokemon figurines that he got to choose at random. I find the anticipation that comes along with not knowing what’s inside the box makes kids want them more than toys that aren’t surprising.

  • Pokemon tokens. He could collect tokens and exchange them for video game time or time watching Pokemon Youtube videos at the end of the day or lunch time.

Top Tips

Using positive reinforcement actually changes the way the brain functions and alters the chemical makeup of neurotransmitters in the brain. When using motivators and then following reinforcement, there are some things to bear in mind to ensure that you make the most of each situation and encourage motivation long-term as well.

  • It should be immediate. Certainly to start with, respond to the behaviour immediately and reinforce the desired behaviour with whatever motivates that child (stickers, praise, toy). As time goes on, you can start to delay the reinforcement.

  • Always be contingent on behaviour. Don't give a reinforcer if a child didn't do what was expected. If you are using reinforcers, it is important that you only use them when a desired behaviour is completed and not at any other time, especially not when you're trying to calm them if dysregulated as this will dull the effect of the motivator.

  • Reinforcers need to be proportionate. In other words, if the demand is bigger and potentially more scary or challenging for the child, offer a bigger motivator.

  • Change it up. It’s also likely that you’ll need to frequently change the type of reinforcement you’re using because the same item doesn’t usually stay motivating to a child over time.

Increasing Intrinsic Motivation

Don't worry, giving physical, external reinforcers and motivators has been shown to not decrease intrinsic motivation. Giving rewards does not mean that a child will never become self-motivated. In fact, you can use motivators to increase intrinsic motivation and guide behaviour.

To encourage intrinsic motivation, you need to give your child a chance to feel those rewarding internal feelings that drive that motivation.

  • Give a child responsibilities you know they can handle so that there is a high likelihood they will succeed and feel that happy feeling.

  • Praise effort rather than completion, especially for particularly difficult tasks.

  • Be enthusiastic and show excitement for them attempting new tasks

  • Don't ever compare them to others

  • Gently challenge them to push past their personal bests without putting too much pressure on.

  • Ensure they feel like a contributor to the whole class environment and that they are valued for who they are and what they can do.

  • Visually track responsibilities and expectations to work up to a bigger reward. Seeing themselves getting closer and closer to the reward can motivate them to keep working hard.

  • Make things enjoyable! Face it, some tasks are just boring and unrewarding for kids. Like cleaning. You may feel good when your house is clean but it doesn’t have the same effect on children. So make it fun. Turn a chore into a game. Sing songs, laugh and play together while doing it.

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