Motivational theory, self-efficacy, attribute theory

Motivation is the force that drives a person to do something. It includes emotions such as: hope, initiative, drive, intensity, self-efficacy, and persistence; that inhibit, neutralize, or promote goal-directed behaviors.

Therefore, the purpose for motivating ourself and others is to find the emotions, which will encourage and sustain us, or them, to acquire expectations (hope) to be able to set goals, have enough self-efficacy to develop the necessary ability, and to find access to enough opportunities to achieve our goals.

Emotions, which are internal.

Learners choose to learn or escape from learning depending on their needs (see Maslow's hierarchy of needs), how they are cared for, their expectations, hope for success, ability to set goals, their self-efficacy, and their opportunities for success or failure.

If learners believe in their self-efficacy to learn, they will be hopeful and eagerly choose to be active and learn new things, both in and outside of school.

If they believe they are incapable of learning and powerless to change, they will lose hope for success and choose to be inactive, not involved, and withdraw from learning experiences and their performance is reduced.

In actuality people are somewhere between two extremes of empowered and hopeful or helpless and hopeless. This is represented by the line between these two extremes in this diagram.

image helpless to self-efficacy

Outstanding teachers use interactions that demonstrate they care and want their students to be successful. They do so when they invite, encourage, and assist learners to set achieveable goals, which motivate their participation by giving them hope of success.

Motivation, achieved by manipulation of the environment to assist learners with new experiences, starts with the learners current understandings and challenges them to achieve with progressive learning experiences, maintaining high expectations, assisting them to resolve conflicts and providing hope that they will achieve success.

Learner's involvement is crucial and degrees of involvement are illustrated along a continuum from helpless and powerless with a belief of self-efficacy as in the following model.

image for involvement

Learning is an integral part of the total body and brain physiology. This physiology is controlled not only by the intellectual responses a person is capable of making, but the perceptual and emotional responses they make consciously or subconsciously, which are beyond their control.

However, both conscious and subconscious thoughts influence their actions or inactions. Responses, which are not singular in nature, but are connected to other emotions, which affect their expectations (hopes), ability to set goals, self-efficacy, and opportunities for success or failure. Connections like waves or explosions that ripple change throughout the body creating internal changes that initiate and accompany external observable behaviors.

The point is, we must recognize that what appears as a simple external response, is accompanied by internal chemical and neurological responses that have been constructed by each individual from a combination of many internal interactions. Interactions based on experiences each person has had over their lifetime. Starting with the genetic material inherited from their parents and their interactions with their environment, even before conception. These interactions, both positive and negative, have created the individual each of us is over our lifetime.

As teachers we find learners more acceptable to change than others. To understand the influences on what motivates change let's consider variables from a two notable historical theories. cover Choice Theory

William Glasser, Choice Theory.

He identifies five variables he claims
influence the choices people make. They are:

  1. Love,
  2. Power,
  3. Freedom,
  4. Fun, and
  5. Survival.

James G. Wilson, Moral Sense.

Book cover Moral Sense

He identifies four variables he claims influence the moral decisions people make. They are:

  1. Sympathy,
  2. Fairness,
  3. Self-control, and
  4. Duty.

Learners engage in activities or attempts to learn a behavior they value, or feel is worthwhile, and hope they can use successfully. As they participate or with draw from participation, they establish an understanding of their abilities (self-efficacy), which they will use to judge success in their participation in future activities, which they use to determine the likelihood and level of their success. The hopefulness of their success based on their expectations (hope), ability to set goals, self-efficacy, and opportunities for success or failure.

Attributes for success that contribute to self-efficacy

Self-efficacy can be understood by considering attributes that contribute to each person's perception of success or failure to achieve their goals .
The following flow chart shows how attributes can affect self-efficacy and self-confidence. (adapted from M. Kay Alderman, 1990)

flow chart attributes of motivation image

Goal setting and self monitoring (metacognition) plays an important part in cultivating self-motivation (Bandura, 1986) and self-efficacy. When learners first encounter a task they consider what their goal might be.

Through self-talk and self-monitoring (metacognition) learners decide goals while anticipating their success or failure based on their ability, effort, the difficulty of the task, or the luck they feel they might have while attempting the task. Their anticipation of success or failure is based on these variables.

If they anticipate failure, they may reason, failure is attributed to: lack of ability, lack of effort, difficulty of the task or bad luck based on illogical reasons. What they believe contributes to their failure or success determines how they approach a task.

A motivational theory and attribution model can be used to understand learner's reasons for success and failure to make better choices to assist them in setting goals, selecting learning strategies, encouraging hope,and positively affecting their motivation with a conversation to assist behavioral change.

The following research examples supports this.

Research Related to Attributes of Success and Failure

Suggestions to motivate, set goals, and develop self-efficacy

Behaviors related to motivation, goal setting, and self-efficacy
Mastery oriented Self-limiting
Productive accomplishments, performances, and skillful performance Counter productive activity, failure,
Confident Doubt
Optimistic Pessimistic
Self-efficacy Confusion, unambitious, avoidance, unwilling to attempt or try, with draw, weak, anxiety, believe in luck
Goal oriented with realistic ambitions and plans Care free, lackadaisical
Constructive, integrate skills into cohesive performance Destructive
Effort, practice, seek corrective feedback (tips & hints) Lack of effort
Persistent Not persistent
Use productive monitoring. Metacognition, Physiological monitoring: heart rate, emotions, nerves, calm steady, self talk.  


Procedure to model and achieve self-efficacy

Procedure for achieving self regulation

Self-regulation requires fore thought, reflection, co-regulation through observation, imitation, and self-control through behaviors such as:

Procedure for setting and achieving goals

Four steps of goal setting

  1. Focus
  2. Set goal
  3. Select and implement
  4. Monitor and adjust

Four step goal setting procedure

  1. Focus on the situation and recognize a need for change. See change
  2. Set goal
    • Select a goal by gathering and analyzing appropriate information for a variety of options and their consequences. See decision making process
    • State the goal clearly.
    • Check to see if the goal is realistic and attainable.
  3. Select effective strategies and make a plan with a procedure to implement and achieve the goal.
  4. Monitor, evaluate, and reflect on the plan and its implementation and make adjustments as necessary.

See also maladaptive behaviors and work inhibition


Self-talk is part of metacognition that can be used to motivate and change stress levels or can be a maladaptive behavior.

We need to recognize when it is negative and strive to change it to positive. In stressful situations it can be paired with relaxation techniques.

When using self-talk, feelings can swing from positive ...

I am doing great!

to negative ...

I suck!

in an instant!

A strategy that works against this ... is to refer to yourself in the third person. Using your own name. Doing this causes you to think about yourself, as you think of others, which creates a little distance from yourself and helps keep your emotions in check.

Example of positive self-talk:

Maladaptive behavior or self-limiting behavior

Learners do not always choose to be successful. Sometimes they choose behaviors that limit their success. We call this misbehaving or maladaptive behaviors.

However, the learner is making choices for their emotional needs based on their current skill set, intellectual abilities, attributes of success or failure, and feelings of hope or hopelessness.

Dreikurs and Cassel (1972) view misbehaving children as discouraged children trying to solve problems with faulty logic that can be shaped by:

  1. Over ambition : I cannot do as well as I want to.
  2. Competition : I cannot do as well as others.
  3. Pressure : I cannot do well when it really counts.
  4. Failure : I just know I will fail.

For them school or life can become hopeless.

They feel weak and helpless and choose behaviors that most often produce failure. Each failure contributes to a feeling of pessimism; and others interacting with them may treat them as weak and useless. This treatment confirms their perception of themselves. Continued confirmation of their perception perpetuates the self-limiting or maladaptive behavior that defeats them as illustrated in a self-fulfilling prophecy or self-fulfilling cycle.

cycle image

Self-fulfilling prophecy or self-fulfilling cycle

Interventions suggestions for maladaptive behaviors

Talk with learners to help them set realistic goals, and use encouragement to help them develop positive feelings about their achievements. Doing this enables them to make wise choices and is the best antidote for the debilitating effects of a cycle of defeat.

A belief in helplessness and powerlessness must be replaced by a belief in their self-efficacy. Only such a belief brings renewed faith in oneself and a sense of adventure in living.

Interventions are suggested by goals: attention, power, revenge, & inadequacy. And by what the person is feeling, how the teacher feels, the learner's reactions to coercion, and strategies to use.

Intervention suggestions for maladaptive behaviors

Goal What a person is feeling How the teacher feels learner's reaction to coercion Strategies to use
  • I only have control when I am noticed or getting what I desire.
  • I belong only when I have attention.
Desire to remind, plead, coax, boss, and make the person do what they believe is "right".
  • Stops as long as there is attention.
  • Later resumes the action or a different action to seek attention.
  • Ignore
  • Redirect
  • Logical consequences
  • Give choices
  • Encourage
  • Goal setting
  • I must dominate
  • I must prove no one can control me
  • I must have power to belong
  • I must win to have power
  • I only belong if you do not have power.
Provoked or threatened
Want to make the learner do it or do not want the student to get away with something.
  • Intensify actions to dominate and be boss.
  • Submits with defiant compliance.
  • Don't get into a power struggle
  • Act friendly
  • Tell the learner you will not engage in a power struggle
  • Withdraw from a power struggle
  • Problem solve and set goals
  • Encourage
  • I can't control so I will punish those who I believe control
  • I can not belong so I will hurt others.
Hurt or mad
How could this happen?
  • Wants to get even.
  • Doesn't like them self.
  • Create order with minimum efforts
  • Have a cooling off period
  • Win child's trust
  • Take time and effort to use problem solving to help the student set goals to create order and maintain it
  • Encourage.
  • I can never have control, so I will not try.
  • It is not possible to belong.
  • I give up
Don't want to try.
  • Feels that it is no use to try.
  • Passively resists
  • Build child's belief in their abilities
  • Success
  • Encourage
  • Teach necessary skills
  • Never give up, pity, or criticize


Four categories of maladaptive behavior

Attention-getting behaviors

Attention-getting behaviors result when learners feel they are not having their emotional needs met. The attention-getting behaviors provide them relief from routine, escape from responsibility, and enlarge the boundaries of acceptable behavior. They seldom consider the costs. Their behavior seems a logical way to be a part of a group by giving them a mistaken sense of significance and belonging. Only when noticed do they feel accepted and if the teacher and or other students ignore them, they may escalate the frequency, duration, or intensity of their behavior.

Punishment, to make them think twice before they do it again, will give them the attention they seek.

Time-out that deprives them social stimulation may increase their desire for attention when they return, and require even more energy to refrain from misbehaving, or a greater desire to get needed attention. Some teachers recognize this and provide the attention they seek through academic activities. They find constructive worthwhile activities in which the learner will choose to be involved.

In a teacher centered classroom the teacher will involve the learner by having them take attendance, collect work, pass out papers ...

In a student centered classroom the teacher diagnosis the student's needs and guides their explorations to acquire attention through their achievement rather than self-limiting attention getting behaviors.

Power-seeking behaviors

Power-seeking behaviors result when the learner does not get attention and acts out of jealousy or envy to keep anyone from looking good or being in control. They seem to decide that if they can’t be number one, then no one will be. They try to prove they can't be controlled and only they will decide what they do.

An inexperienced person may try to control them by establishing superiority. That is not the best solution. As long as both parties view the situation as a win-lose situation there can be no reconciliation. The educator must refuse an emotional conflict and look for ways to deescalate the conflict, withdraw from provocation and invite conversation to negotiate behavioral change. Most learners do not want an emotional conflict, but if backed into a corner they will be left with no alternative. After each conflict they will have learned more about the teacher or other person’s vulnerability and how to provoke future incidents. The teacher must give and share power to support responsible behavior.

In a teacher centered classroom the teacher often keeps the power and learners who feel controlled may resort to power-seeking behaviors.

In student centered classrooms the teacher will find ways to share and give power to the learners and keep the power only when necessary. These teachers listen to their learners to find their interest, their developmental levels, and what they know. Then, use that information to suggest activities that meet the learner's needs, give choices, and allow them to construct meaningful knowledge. Learners who desire power often have very good leadership qualities that can be enlisted beneficially.

Revenge behaviors

Revenge behaviors result when the learner feels they have lost control, that they have been controlled by another, and seek to punish them by getting even or hurting them. This will satisfied them for the indignity caused to them. They are not out to prove themselves at all costs, but desire to discredit or hurt the person who has control, no matter what it cost them.

People who try to control them are tempted to return hurt for hurt. However, we must refuse to retaliate so as not to destroy self-esteem, and cause other learners to root for the underdog, and boo the bullying teacher. A person so discouraged and desperate, lacks a sense of belonging or significance. A person will give up revenge behaviors when they have a sense of significance and belonging. So when they are invited to belong to a community, they will understand that reciprocity kindness, understanding, and cordiality, are ingredients for healthy communities.

The teacher’s attitude might be: You do this to me because you know I will return hurt with help.

In a child centered classroom a teacher communicates with students and avoids most revenge behaviors.

In a teacher centered classroom the teachers may desire to win a power struggle and often contribute to revenge-seeking behaviors.

Display-of-inadequacy behaviors

Display-of-inadequacy behaviors are seen in learners that are physically present, but withdraw from interacting with the intellectual ideas of the school community and become emotionally absent. They are content to let the educator have their way, but choose passive resistance to express their dissatisfaction, discontent, defiance, or defeat. They know the educator can not force them to whole-heartedly cooperate and learn. They mistakenly believe that if they do nothing, they avoid the hurt of trying to achieve what they believe is not possible and their inevitable failure.

Teachers may decide to let them alone since they are not causing trouble and invoke temporary measures by helping as time permits, but have no long range plan for helping them learn how to set and achieve appropriate goals. An appropriate plan is to help them set acceptable goals, teach them necessary skills, encourage them to feel the positiveness of change, and achieve a little more each day to find hope in learning and achieving. Care must be used in increasing requirements. Some learners are fearful of the need to do a bit more each day and not being able to meet increasing demands. They see their teachers; and parents’ expectations as goals that are expanding faster than their growth and self-efficacy. Unconditional love gives students the ability to feel they can be loved without the need to constantly do better.

More intervention suggestions for each of the four maladaptive behaviors.




Management - Self development & individual, group, & classroom management


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes &