Educators (and parents) often underestimate how much encouragement children need, and this is especially true for children who struggle academically. Julian Rotter, whom many know as the creator of the concept of internal-external locus of control (i.e., the extent to which people believe their personal actions matter or not), provides some tools for us to understand both encouragement and discouragement -- and how to deal with each.
Ingredients of Students' Motivation
Rotter's social learning theory says that we can predict how a child will respond in a learning situation if we know a few basic things:
- What are their expectations about how much their effort will matter and how successful they will be?
- How much value do they attach to effort on, or success in, the task, i.e., getting an A, getting a good grade on a report or other assignment, being praised for contributions to a work group, or doing whatever reading or background research is required.
- What is their history of success or failure in tasks like the one in question?
- What is their subjective psychological situation surrounding the task, i.e., what is their view of the importance of their performance or success to peers, parents, or other adults, and what other matters are occupying their minds and hearts at the time that might be competing for psychological or emotional attention and energy?
From these four elements -- expectations, value, history, and psychological situation -- we can understand a lot about motivation and how encouragement and discouragement develop.
History and Perception Matter
The more students have a history of failure in a task, or a sense that effort has not led to valued results, the more encouragement they will need. That's because their negative learning history has to be overcome. Their history creates strong expectations that success is unlikely and effort is pointless -- i.e., the essence of discouragement. This dynamic often eventuates in school disaffection and dropout.
The longer students have been in school in contexts of failure, the stronger their negative expectations and the more encouragement they will need. That's why it is so important to start early in creating a love of learning and learning successes -- and why the increasing focus on academics in early childhood can be highly misguided for many youngsters who first need to build their confidence as learners.
That reservoir of confidence helps create resilience in the face of challenges, and failures. Similarly, we often overestimate the power of a couple of successes in the present; they are being weighed down by numerous past failures.
Four Steps to Providing Strategic Encouragement
Encouragement is more than cheerleading, saying, "You can do it!" And it's more than praising progress, though there is much to be said for using all of these more often. What many students need is strategic encouragement applied to them in coordinated ways by all of their educators and pursued systematically and over time:
Step 1: Establish a rationale for why a task will matter for the student -- the more tangible and proximal, the better.
Step 2: Show how the task is related to other tasks with which the student has been successful, or relatively so.
Step 3: Show how specific assets and skills the student has are applicable to working on the task.
Step 4: Arrange for appreciative check-ins with valued adults or peers as the work progresses to reinforce and sustain effort.
Above all, don't skimp on the first step. However long it may take to establish a rationale, that time must be spent. In the absence of that, only a very strongly valued task is likely to be pursued, and these are not abundant in the course of typical school days. One can see the extraordinary potency of project-based learning (on topics that engage students), social-emotional learning, and service-learning opportunities in providing instructional experiences with high value.
Interspersing even one of these kinds of learning experiences within each marking period, from early education onward, can keep positive motivation kindled and serve as a springboard for ongoing encouragement.