Motivation and Social and Emotional Learning: Tips for Group-Building for Birthright Israel and Beyond

December 15, 2019

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 


The community that is built on an immersive travel program, like Birthright Israel, can often determine the success of the experience. It is within these groups that we share experiences, create memories and meaningful friendships. It is also within this community where we deepen our connection to the Jewish people, Israel, and develop our identities. While many of us rush to these Jewish teachable moments and thoughtfully planned programs, there are antecedents to their real impact that we may often overlook.

Decades of work in psychology on a theory of basic human needs, referred to as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), has identified three key psychological needs that determine how intrinsically motivated an individual is in the context of learning: autonomy, competence, and relatedness [1]. Individuals in newly formed groups are more likely to buy-in to meaningful experiences if they feel autonomous and competent as an individual, and related to the rest of their community.

Autonomy, or self-direction, is the experience of choice. Competence, or mastery, is the need to experience oneself as being capable in the environment. And relatedness encompasses the need to feel connected to the group [2]. All three needs are powerful motivators that keep individuals engaged intrinsically, carrots and sticks unneeded. The overall framework of SDT serves as a helpful framework for organizing social – emotional learning (SEL) initiatives.

We imagine these are not surprising. Which is fantastic! But without acknowledging their importance, Birthright Israel madrichim and other educators may not be as successful as they hope. Without fulfilling these needs and building community [3], we may not be able to achieve our goals and only provide our participants with a fun trip, instead of a meaningful Jewish journey.

How? Below are turn-key, practical ways for those involved in building group learning experiences to enhance their work through attention to autonomy, competence and relatedness. Throughout, we use Birthright Israel as a focus while acknowledging that these suggestions have broad relevance….

One important note, we encourage you to run these types of programs throughout your entire program and not just at the beginning when they seem necessary.

By fulfilling these needs, group leaders build trusting relationships with their participants, which is invaluable in the learning process. Further, madrichim prepare the group for their journey, support the participants’ identity development, and make lasting meaning of the experience with them, something we crave in all aspects of our lives as Jews, and as Humans.

Read the complete article at eJewish Philanthropy


  1. Ryan, R.M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63(3), 397-427.
  2. Connell, J. P. (1990). Context, self, and action: A motivational analysis of self-system processes across the life span. In D. Cicchetti & M. Beeghly (Eds.), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation series on mental health and development. The self in transition: Infancy to childhood (pp. 61-97). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 
  3. see Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.


Updated: Jan. 08, 2020