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Decoding Teen Motivation: The Ins and Outs of Risks, Rewards, and Relationships


One of the most important skills to master in adolescence is balancing risks and rewards. In this regard, human beings are like many other mammals. A time arrives when adolescents must go out and explore, learn to survive, and establish their own relationships beyond their families. The mindset and motivations that teens bring to these challenges play a key role in how they fair.

Mindsets and motivations are not set in stone, especially during adolescence which, second to early childhood, is a significant period of increased brain plasticity. During adolescence, the human brain adapts and changes in response to environments and experiences. This underlines the role of educators as molders. Structuring school environments that draw on the science of adolescent learning can help ensure that students have the learning opportunities needed to prepare for college, careers, and life.

The Dualities of Praise

Adolescents’ habits of mind matter and they can power—or topple—a young person’s trajectory. Students with a “growth mindset” believe they can improve themselves and their abilities. By contrast, students with a “fixed mindset” believe that their abilities are static no matter how much effort they exert. Students with growth mindsets, regardless of their background, consistently outperform those with fixed mindsets.

Educators can help adolescents develop growth mindsets by motivating them in developmentally appropriate ways. For instance, using rewards such as praise does not work the same in all cases. Praising how students apply their own thinking and the strategies they use to seek solutions, rather than praising only their abilities or academic outcomes, can be beneficial to learning. For historically underserved students specifically, validating a student’s ability along with praising the processes that students apply to their learning can help reverse effects of negative stereotypes.

The prospect of a teacher’s praise—one type of extrinsic motivation— might drive some students to excel. Other students might be motivated by intrinsic rewards, such as an inherent love of solving problems that prompts their perseverance when faced with challenging course work. However, a sense of personal achievement alone may not be enough to motivate all students. For instance, historically underserved students have higher college persistence rates when they identify a greater  purpose for their learning, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) report Science of Adolescent Learning: Risk Taking, Rewards, and Relationships. Educators should emphasize this type of intrinsic motivation by connecting academic learning to students’ personal, aspirational, and professional interests.

The Need for Peer Relationships

As children enter adolescence, their social interactions change substantially. They begin to spend more time in peer groups than during earlier periods of development. Friends can equal or surpass parents as sources of support and advice.

Simultaneously, adolescents experience increased sensitivity to social evaluation and feelings of belonging, acceptance, admiration, and respect that can impact their mindsets about school work, according to All4Ed’s report. Some students might feel that doing well in school puts them in the sights of bullies, while others worry that failing to engage in class might label them as incapable. Having strong friendships with peers who value learning relates to a student’s higher motivation for academic achievement.

Tuned in to Learning

Engagement in school sometimes declines during adolescence. This may be attributed to a lack of developmentally appropriate approaches to teaching and learning aligned with adolescents’ changing needs and tendencies.

Adolescents experience a heightened desire for novel and exciting activities and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors to fulfill that need. However, the adolescent disposition for taking risks is not necessarily a deficit. In fact, it can be positive, such as when adolescents reach out to adults as mentors or assume more challenging academic activities and hobbies.

While the presence of adults in adolescents’ lives might decrease in some ways, adults still play a critical role in fashioning the learning landscape and social interaction for students. When educators don’t prioritize adolescents’ developmental needs, educational experiences become less enticing, reducing the chances that students will want to engage.

Educators can leverage adolescents’ natural tendencies by offering them school-based opportunities to take risks associated with positive academic and social outcomes. For example, teachers can provide students with authentic experiential activities that push them outside of their comfort zones but in ways that students still feel safe and supported. This could include assignments that students own, prepare, and share in planned events like performances, debates, talent exhibitions, or art displays that allow them to engage with their classmates, families, and community. Students can set personal goals for themselves and predetermine the rewards that matter most to them—rewards that are not necessarily extrinsic or tangible but rather ones that help them develop their self-confidence, build a stronger positive mindset, and cultivate personal skills. While this type of risk taking may be stressful for some students, it can lead to learning and success on tasks.

Educators also can connect academic learning to current events or students’ own experiences and aspirations ascertained through questionnaires, student advisory meetings, clubs, and online discussion boards. They can use lunchtime, homeroom, and other less-structured time as well to build supportive relationships with students separate from academic work. Schools also can open up more opportunities for students with poor academic or behavior records to participate in rigorous and supportive academic and extracurricular activities. Such participation can increase prosocial behavior and feelings of academic competence. When adolescents feel valued and respected in school, they are more likely to report feeling motivated to achieve academically.

Science of Adolescent Learning at All4Ed

All4Ed supports schools and districts in implementing established findings from adolescent learning and development research—a body of disciplines known collectively as the science of adolescent learning. Visit to access All4Ed’s collection of resources and join All4Ed’s mailing list to stay current on the latest news and developments. To share your expertise and receive answers to specific questions, contact All4Ed’s Vice President of Practice Winsome Waite, PhD, at or (202) 261-9846.

Featured photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action