NeuronsOver 20 years ago, when Candyce Ihnot was working toward her master’s degree in Special Education, she grappled with the question of how to keep her students motivated. She had read the research and asked the experts, but her most meaningful answer came from her daughter Claire, a competitive swimmer. “Claire, how do you stay motivated to swim all those laps?” Candyce asked one day after practice. Claire looked at her mother as though the answer was obvious. “My coach times me,” she said.

Claire was willing to do the same tiring task over and over because of the intrinsic motivation that came from improving a little bit each time—she strived to beat her score.

And so, when Candyce developed the Read Naturally strategy, she built in a concrete way for students to monitor their own improvement. This motivating component became the hallmark of the Read Naturally strategy. It is a key reason why struggling students experience success.

Today, neuroscientists are beginning to understand the mechanics behind what Candyce put into practice all those years ago. They have discovered that motivation signals the release of a chemical called dopamine into large areas of the brain, which allows the neurons in the brain to function better. Researcher Po Bronson, who writes highly acclaimed articles on the science of parenting, sums it up as follows: “The motivated brain, literally, operates better, signals faster. Kids learn better.” In this article, Bronson explains the research in the context of his son, whose love of Pokémon cards helped him improve in math and reading.

When we’re motivated, our brains work better. It makes sense. And it explains why my husband can remember every detail about his beloved Minnesota Twins, but will always forget where he put his car keys.

How do you keep your students motivated? Share your tips and ideas in the comments section!