A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Ways to Ignite the Motivational Flame Among Gifted Kids (Part 1) By Steven I. Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP


Not all high ability kids are equally motivated. High ability students vary tremendously in their motivation, even at an early age. Here is a baker’s dozen of motivational strategies that parents and teachers can use to re-ignite the motivational flame.

In workshops that I have given, both in the USA and internationally, a frequent question that comes up, asked by both educators and parents alike, is how to deal with underachieving high-ability students. Teachers and parents seem especially perplexed with how to motivate bright students lacking even nascent motivation. This is an important question. However, I have found that it is not easy to answer, especially in an audience of 600 parents or teachers! There are so many different reasons for low motivation. Perhaps, in fact, there are as many causes for underachievement as there are gifted students who appear turned off by school and academics.

Of course, motivation is very important – really, it is critical for learning to occur. Especially higher-order learning. Motivation is important at all levels of learning and for high-ability students at every age and grade. And motivation is equally important for all learners; kids of average ability and students of low ability, not only a problem unique to high ability kids. Having served as Executive Director of the pre-collegiate gifted program at Duke University for many years, and more recently as co-Director of a summer academy in science, engineering and space technology for Florida’s brightest high school students, I have repeatedly observed first-hand the importance of motivation. Even among extraordinarily bright students, we all-too-often see marked individual differences in students’ levels of drive, enthusiasm, persistence, determination, commitment, and zest. This is, simply put, a fact of life. Kids vary tremendously in their motivation.

I’ve observed that bright kids of all ages and varying profiles of abilities and talents vary tremendously in their level of academic motivation. The field doesn’t yet have a measure of motivation with quite the preciseness or discriminatory ability of IQ tests. But if we did, we’d see that kids vary as much in how much motivation they are willing to expend in school as they vary in their intellectual ability.  Spend ten minutes talking with any seasoned teacher – a kindergarten teacher working in an inner-city school or a Professor at a small, elite New England college, and they’ll both relate stories about bright students that they’ve had in their career who were inexplicably apathetic, bored, disinterested, unmotivated. They’ll also be able to share stories about the passionate and animated student who relished challenging learning activities and even seemed to enjoy homework assignments! …Highly motivated students who they fondly remember as enthusiastic, determined, persistent, and passionate about learning.

Readers familiar with my research, writing and workshop talks know that I pirate much of my thinking about motivation, kids’ achievement and success in life from my work with young, elite futbol (soccer) players. Two recent books on high ability kids-both available on Amazon.com, Serving the Gifted: Evidence- Based Clinical and Psycho-educational Practice (NY: Routledge) and Essentials of Gifted Assessment (NJ: Wiley) both discuss the processes underlying talent development on the playing field and in the classroom. I observed from the sidelines as a parent – and later as a psychologist consulting with the Duke women’s soccer team, how important motivation is in transforming the quite extraordinary general and specific sports-related abilities of very young athletes into the highly developed soccer skills of NCAA competitors and even world class champions. I’ve come to recognize that the same developmental processes hold true in the classroom and science lab as on the soccer field (as well as in the courtroom, surgical operating room, artist’s studio, performing stage, or really any culturally valued arena!). Motivation makes a real difference.

There are many theories and a ton of research on motivation and its relationship to learning and performance. I would bore to tears most of you expounding on this rich literature. Let me only very briefly mention a few noteworthy names and theories. Early pioneers include Henry Murray, who wrote on curiosity as an innate motive in the 1930’s. David McClelland later introduced the concept of achievement motivation in the ‘50s. Of course, Ivan Pavlov in Russia and B. F. Skinner here in the USA pioneered our understanding of classical and operant learning. Robert White, also in the ‘50s, proposed the competence motive. More recently, Albert Bandura at Stanford University introduced us to social learning theory and the power of self-efficacy, and Edward Deci and Richard Ryan – whose work I am rather fond of, advanced a theory of self-determination, proposing the psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. As you can see, there is indeed a rich motivation literature that helps explain both why a high ability student might be unmotivated, and how to ignite a spark to kindle the motivational flame.

Rest assured that I’m not going to discuss these theories or the many reasons for low motivation. That’s a story for a much longer blog! What I will share in an upcoming blog are thirteen proven motivational strategies and techniques that can and often do make a real difference. Some of these techniques and strategies are what I call universal. They work for almost all students, irrespective of learning style or level of ability. They tend to work regardless of geography, gender, or social class. There are other motivational strategies, on the other hand, with less robust and more limited effectiveness. They work with some, but not all students. Some apply to both parents and teachers, but most are specific to helping educators ignite the motivational flame in their students

Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on The Creativity Post