Pam Bylsma, assistant principal at Hinsdale Central High School (IL) offers her insight into developing intrinsic motivation in teens.

Over the course of eight years, Hinsdale Central High School has evolved into a culture where students exhibit ethical and performance values, earning us recognition as a National School of Character.  How did we develop our students’ intrinsic motivation to do the right thing?  How can you work with your teenagers so that they genuinely strive to be their ethical best?

When sharing our story with high school educators, we tell them that it takes time for a new program to build momentum, but in four short years, your entire building will turn over.  So start by finding a group of courageous students and passionate staff.  Collaborate with the students on how to package the message for your student body.  Avoid replicating someone else’s program in your school.  Instead, build it to reflect the school you are and the school you aspire to be.  Empower all of your stakeholders to make a difference.  See leadership potential in everyone.

Back when we started our initiative, we experienced some resistance from students, who were fearful that we were going to preach to them like children.  They dreaded some “cheesy,” moral-for-the-month, condescending homeroom program.  Instead, approach it as we did, and respect the dignity of your teenage students by inviting them to the table to reflect honestly about their world, their lives, and their school.  Through focus groups and surveys, bravely ask tough questions, hold your breath, and hear the truth.  Your students will expose problems that the adults in your building haven’t seen or don’t understand. When you do this authentically, your teens will find their voice and, ultimately, their power.

After you ask students what type of world they want to exist in, reassure them that they have the power to craft any reality they want, and you will help them do it.  Their intrinsic motivation will flourish if you take a bold step and commit wholeheartedly to the concept of shared leadership.  In other words, allow your students to generate solutions to the issues that distress them.  Our tendency as educators is to swoop in and fix the problems for them, which only undermines the development of their intrinsic motivation.  The key is to engage the students in the task of re-culturing their school. Emboldened by their aspirations and the trust of adults, teenagers become empowered to solve their challenges. Their peers, inspired by their positive example, will join the movement, adding more innovative ideas and energy. The cumulative impact will result in students of good character becoming the norm and not the exception.

When working to build students’ self-motivation, it is critically important to know what not to do.  Avoid implying that character education is being instituted at your school in order to “fix the kids.”  Students will recoil against a message of this type.  You don’t want to communicate to your students that character education is something that you are doing to them.  Rather, your goal should be for students to see adults working along side of them, building our character day to day, seeking to adhere to the same values that we want them to aspire to.  We all build our character everyday by the choices we make; therefore, people need continual opportunities to make better moral choices, to try again, to improve.  Teenagers are more likely to be motivated toward positive change if someone believes in their capacity to do so.  Youth need support through intentional coaching, modeling, and goal setting.  By putting your school’s core ethical values into each teen’s consciousness, students are more likely to develop the intrinsic motivation to strive to be their best ethical selves.

In conclusion, being committed to the concept of shared leadership takes courage on your part.  You need to be willing, as we were, to step back and trust students to take on bold responsibilities. Our students never cease to amaze us.  They dream big and then they work hard to make those dreams come true.  Their ability to envision a better world is inspirational; their energy electrifying.  Transformational is the word that comes to mind.