George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Motivating the Unmotivated

Here's an all-too-common scenario:

A group of elementary or middle school students are unruly, disrespectful, and underperforming academically and socially in the classroom. They do not appreciate the value of education. The teacher, despite good intentions and passion, is viewed as an adversarial or irrelevant authority figure. The students are unwilling to participate in tutoring or traditional mentoring programs.

Classroom teaching can best be accomplished -- and sometimes can only be accomplished -- if a student is willing to be taught. Tutoring and traditional mentoring programs are only effective if a student wants to take advantage of them. An alarming number of unmotivated, underperforming elementary and middle school children are not willing to do so.

In his book Dropping Out, Russell Rumberger lays out the societal consequences, including:

    . . . poor academic performance in middle school and even elementary school can decrease a student’s motivation in high school, which can lead to failing courses and skipping school, . . . [and] dropping out.

Statistic Brain provides this information:

  • Total number of high school dropouts annually: 3,000,000
  • Dropouts in the largest 50 U.S. cities: 41 percent
  • U.S. crimes committed by high school dropouts: 75 percent
  • U.S. jobs for which a high school dropout is ineligible: 90 percent
  • Lifetime earning difference (high school graduate vs. dropout): $260,000
Illo of rows of small people using computers growing into larger people
Illo of rows of small people using computers growing into larger people

So what can be done?

Focus, Commitment, Reinforcement, Effectiveness, Fun

  • The goal: Students who respect their teachers, schools, peers, and the learning process.
  • The key: Student motivation.
  • Additional benefit: Meaningful service learning project for the high school students.

An effective student motivation strategy must include all of these five components:

1. Focus

Teachers must be ready, willing, and able to focus primarily on motivation. Many valuable supplemental educational and social programs are available. But classroom learning and supplemental programs will have greatly diminished value (or become completely valueless) if students are ambivalent or unwilling to participate. Unmotivated students are unlikely to embrace classroom learning or participate in tutoring, homework help, or traditional mentoring programs.

2. Time Commitment

Teachers and administrators are mindful and even protective of curriculum time. However, a strategy requiring only 15 minutes per week can provide an excellent return on time invested. And considering the amount of time wasted on disciplining unruly, unmotivated students, a 15-minute-per-week investment in motivation will result in a net increase in actual teaching time.

3. Reinforcement Through Repetition

The Energizer Bunny may keep going and going. However, a motivation strategy for elementary and middle school students requires repetitive reinforcement. Teachers must include this piece of the strategy if they hope to be effective.

4. Effective Motivators

Any successful motivation strategy requires an effective motivator. A story circulating around the internet tells of a father bringing his daughter to a school function. The daughter, afraid of being embarrassed by her father, pleaded, "Dad, whatever you do, don't sing." The father was Billy Joel. Whether or not this story is true, the sentiment is certainly believable. No matter who the parents or guardians are, their admonitions or offers of assistance are often disregarded. If teachers and administrators are fortunate to have respectful, pliable students, a specific motivation strategy is unnecessary. However, in chronically unruly classrooms and/or those with unmotivated, underperforming students, the wishes of adult authority figures are disregarded. Unfortunately this often rises to the level of disrespect and defiance. However, academically accomplished high school students are powerful role models. By virtue of their being older, they are automatically "cool" and respected. They are viewed as older peers and are therefore easy to relate to -- particularly if they share common interests.

5. Fun for the Students

The not-so-secret ingredient for any motivational activity is making sure that it's fun. As we're about to see, video chatting (through Skype, Facetime, or other media) is fun. This is an activity that students look forward to participating in.

A Unique Motivational Program

These five components are at the core of a resource that I've developed for elementary and middle school teachers that also functions as a community service opportunity for high school students. The program, called On Giants' Shoulders, advocates a strategy for repetitively motivating underperforming elementary and middle school students to respect their teachers, peers, schools, and the learning process using 15-minute, once-per-week online chats with academically accomplished high school students who appreciate the value of education.

The students are paired according to interests (sports, music, art, dance, etc.). For example, a member of the high school football team is paired with a student who loves football. A group of three older/younger student pairs share a computer or tablet for the weekly online chat. With only five computers, 15 older/younger student pairs can be accommodated in 15 minutes, 30 student pairs in 30 minutes, etc.

The implementation process is simple. High school students start a branch of OGS in the same manner they would any other school club. The students are supervised by teachers or faculty members in each school, as is the case in any school activity.

Is 15 minutes per week really enough time?

The sole purpose of this program is to motivate students interacting with engaged older peers. As a result, the younger students will be more willing to put in the time required for more time-consuming activities, such as classroom learning, tutoring, homework help, or Big Brother/Big Sister type mentoring programs.

Benefits for elementary students and schools

  • Stimulates motivation
  • Teaches communication skills
  • Encourages respect for teachers and school
  • Encourages respect for the learning process
  • Provides recognition for success and attempts to succeed
  • Counters low self-expectations
  • Reduces time wasted on disciplining students
  • Teaches computer skills
  • Fun and exciting
  • Minimal time commitment
  • Easy to implement

Benefits for high school students and schools

  • Teaches leadership
  • Teaches responsibility
  • Provides a valuable community service
  • Provides a resume-worthy activity when applying to colleges and future employment
  • Provides potential positive coverage of the school or students by local television, radio, and other news media
  • Provides a dynamic new relationship between the partnered schools
  • Minimal time commitment
  • Easy to implement

On Giants' Shoulders is a nonprofit organization -- there are never fees or costs of any kind. Implementation forms, instructional videos, and emailed answers to specific questions are available through the site.

Some feedback from a middle school teacher indicated that the program provided something special for her kids which was so important, especially for the less motivated ones, because it gave them something to look forward to every week. And since this model is internet based, partner schools can be across the street or across the country. One teacher stated: "Our students loved meeting and talking with older students and from another area (of the country)". A high school student said, "We loved the chats and are so happy to restart OGS this coming year."

Of course, this isn't the only answer for engaging and motivating underperforming, unruly, and disinterested elementary and middle school students. We'd love to hear your strategies, too. Please share in the comments section below.

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Megan Davis's picture

As a middle school educator, one of the biggest challenges I face is motivating my students. I really enjoyed reading the various strategies you mentioned. I cannot wait to incorporate these in my classroom and hopefully this will improve student motivation in all of my classes. Awesome blog!

Muddy's picture

Hahahahaha, guess you all missed this one: "pliable students" Hahahahaha. And there it is!

If you don't get pliable students that can be manipulated, coerced, and dominated, you are stuck, stuck, stuck. Those poor headstrong kids!

Wwwwwake up to the fact that the only way to join the revolution is to quit being a cog in the system: quit quit quit. Do something you really like, your passion (and I got news for you, it ain't "helping the children") or join another kind of school, the school of the future, where children own their school day, decide what to do, who to do it with, and who they need to help them do what they want to do (often not adults). It's a reality now and will be the only way in the future.

Drop out! Join in! You won't be quitting, you'll be solving the problem. You'll really do right by children.

Leona Hinton's picture

I totally love this brilliant program!
Probably, 15 minutes is not enough but it's definitely a good starting point.

Sam's picture

Seems to me that--at its core--this is a student mentoring program that matches kids based on interests. Given how much younger grades tend to look up to higher grades, this is a good opportunity to introduce them to potential role models. You won't save the world, but you might open some eyes to what's possible.

I can see this as part of a larger framework supporting the students.

Lionel Duffield's picture
Lionel Duffield
Sales and marketing manager for last 20 years

Great article Chelsea....

There is also one more program named studybooster that allows students to create study goals, invite sponsors and earn after completion of the goal. It's totally free. And it's working now in Australia.

Toni Fain's picture

I truly enjoyed reading about this program! I teach gifted students and sometimes, I have trouble getting them to perform because they are already so smart, they don't think they have to try their hardest. The five strategies you mentioned were right on point. If teachers could utilize these five factors into their daily practice, students would definitely become more motivated.

Ahbez Eden's picture

This is excellent information for teachers, especially for those in special ed schools. A child's disability, in a way, forces them to keep away from their peers and teachers and it is important that the teacher knows how to involve these kids.

TGeorge1181's picture

This has been a great read because I have a student who is totally unmotivated -- he doesn't care about ANYTHING. He will take a low grade when given the opportunity to score higher, he doesn't mind being out of class, and his behavior is wishy washy (most of the time he is angry). I loved the strategies you have mentioned and I have a good idea of what I need to do to effectively motivate him.

mg7329's picture

This was a great article because at times we are given students that might be difficult than other. I know that it might be time consuming and even extra work to motivate the students and push them but some students might not have motivation at home. I dislike how their making it seem like children with less motivation might not do good in the future that a big judgment on children.

DG's picture
Family man

Ten years ago,Kelly Lambert, PhD. discovered an process that reaches this issue, as well as HS angst and depression issues that inhibit motivation. It was one of several strategies for reducing angst and depressive influences in all age groups. Her book was Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist's Hands-On Approach, Basic Books. She found that there is exactly one group that is nearly completely resistant to anxiety disorders and depression: Those who have a relatively high degree of hand-eye coordination task load routinely. Such tasks change brain chemistry. A handful of examples: sculpture, watch repair (not that kids would do that!), basketball, throwing/catching balls, hockey, wood carving, calligraphy. The key is not necessarily creativity, but the demand for coordinating dexterous movements with continuous observation. Bring back shop class, auto repair, and the like. Then, though the video chats are a wonderful and proven help, perhaps the most threatening source of non-motivation will abate and better self-definition & confidence will also flourish.

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