Special Education Expert Richard Lavoie Motivates Teachers to Motivate Students

Posted on by Denise James


More than 500 teachers will head into the school year with newfound strategies — and renewed energy — for motivating their students after attending a Polk State-sponsored workshop featuring special education expert Richard Lavoie on Friday.

“I learned that it’s not that kids are hard to motivate,” said Letitia Bellows, an art teacher at Sleepy Hill Elementary in Lakeland, “it’s that teachers need to find out what matters to them.”

Lavoie holds three degrees in special education and served as an administrator of residential programs for children with special needs for 30 years. He has served as a visiting lecturer for universities including Harvard, Georgetown and Syracuse, and has been featured on nationally televised programs including “Today” and “Good Morning America.” He has also served as a consultant on learning disabilities for agencies and organizations such as NPR, PBS, The New York Times and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Lavoie’s most recent book, “The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child,” was featured in USA Today.

During his morning presentation at Victory Church in Lakeland, Lavoie shared strategies for motivating all students, not just those with special needs.

To explain his approach to motivating students, Lavoie shared a story from his time working as a teacher in Boston:

“Workers were trying to decide whether to clear the snow off of the stairs or the wheelchair ramp first,” he said. “The non-disabled students said, ‘Well, there are more of us here, so clear the stairs first.’ Then the one student in the wheelchair spoke and said, ‘Well, if you clear the ramp, everyone can use it.’”

During his three-hour lecture, Lavoie explained that everyone is driven by what he calls “primary and secondary motivators.” These motivators underlie everything we do and every decision we make. Primary motivators are universal and are based in survival, including basic necessities such as food and water. Secondary motivators, meanwhile, are unique to an individual’s personality. For instance, some are motivated by “status,” or the need to feel important, while others are motivated by “autonomy,” or the need to be independent.

Lavoie advised his audience to customize their motivation strategies to individual students’ secondary needs. For instance, for students who are motivated by “status,” teachers might use “prestige” strategies, such as giving gold star stickers or small toys from a treasure box. Meanwhile, students who have the secondary need of “affiliation” will be motivated by interaction and encouragement from others. These students will thrive in small-group projects.

Charlene Vaughn, a sixth-grade science teacher from Jewett Middle Academy Magnet, said she plans to make identifying her students’ secondary motivators a first priority when the school year begins.

“During Richard Lavoie’s lecture, I had many faces running through my head of past students,” she said. “I’ve decided to give a survey on the first day of school, and have the students grade themselves on their secondary motivators.”

Lavoie said motivation is more important now than ever, because in our society, learning doesn’t end when students graduate from high school or college — it lasts a lifetime.

“The problem with teaching today is that the strategies are for a closed-book world, but we live in an open-book world,” he said, referring to quickly evolving technology.

This was the second consecutive year Polk State College has brought internationally recognized education experts to Polk County. Last year, best-selling authors Harry and Rosemary Wong shared classroom management strategies from their book “The First Days of School.” Both the Wong and Lavoie events were co-sponsored by Polk State College, Polk County Public Schools and Victory Christian Academy.

“Events like today’s outstanding presentation by Richard Lavoie are all about student success,” said Beverly Woolery, director of Polk State’s Educator Preparation Institute and organizer of the Lavoie event.

“Events such as these are about helping teachers improve their skills, but ultimately, about helping them help the students of Polk County succeed.”

Polk State College’s education programs include  bachelor’s degrees in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education, an associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Management, and the Educator Preparation Institute, an accelerated training option for anyone who has a non-education bachelor’s degree and wants to become a teacher.