Student Engagement

Motivating the Unmotivated

July 30, 2015         Updated September 28, 2016

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.

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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
Image Credit: Chelsea Dale

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.