George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Trina is an eighth grader trapped in her own prison. She has every excuse in the book and is often referred to as just unmotivated. But I don't buy that story. Not at all.

To a five-year-old, learning is exciting. While some are academic naturals, others lag. Well-meaning educators intervene, and praise, rewards, and external incentives surface. Thus, we can see the sixth component of reading -- motivation. But what of the adolescents who deflect their inability to keep up by throwing a pencil when you aren't looking, or by bullying others? Enter the "unmotivated" adolescent.

Learners are motivated by three factors: desire to learn, incentives, or fear of failure. As we grow, most of the early curiosity is tested away, and school becomes work. Obstacles increase, desire to learn decreases, and incentives and/or fear of failure move to the forefront. Jack Canfield, self-esteem expert, reports that 80 percent of first graders posses high self-esteem, but by high school graduation, this drops to a staggering five percent.

But certainly you aren't reading this blog for that bleak truth. So now what?

University of Minnesota instructor Martha Farrell Erickson, PhD, (2003) identifies the "critical ingredients for healthy child and youth development" as the Three C's. In my opinion, they are critical for educating any child, and most importantly, for reversing the earlier damage done to self-esteem, which can cause blocks in motivation.


Brain research reveals that if students feel happy and comfortable, they are more apt to retain learning. Connecting with our kiddos helps us to build trust and to educate the entire child. Dr. Ross Greene, psychology professor at Harvard University, wrote in 2007 that all children would perform if each possessed the necessary skills to complete the task. If we can pinpoint and support students with skill deficits, they will succeed. It is our job to know them, and to empower them to know themselves.  Here's how:

  • Reader Self-Perception Scale: Determine which students need more encouragement and how to approach each one individually.
  • Learning Styles Assessments: Learning your students' preferences and making them aware will empower them to learn and produce.
  • Multiple Intelligences Assessments: Show your students their strengths and then allow them to reflect, gain power, and proceed carefully.
  • Skill Deficit Assessments: The problem usually lies in the fact that we never seem to dig deep enough. Answers are most often not the most obvious. Assess formally and informally to be thorough.
  • Inventories: Getting to know your students' interests allows you to pair them with good-fit reading material. You could quite possibly find a book that not only matches what a student is capable of managing, but is also on a topic that he or she enjoys!
  • Types of Learner Questionnaire: A U.S. Army study by Dr. Valerie Rice divides learners into four different types, depending on their approach (or non-approach) to learning new material.


In the book Bridging Cultures Between Home and School, Elise Trumbull et al. discuss collectivist cultures. Adolescents of families from all over the world grow up with a sense of collectivity, and parents emphasize cooperation and community. Our job is to support each student individually while honoring those who also need to feel like they are contributing.

This is just as much an engagement philosophy as it is one of esteem building. The more you use a variety of discussion strategies, the more engaged your students become.


Erickson's third C is the heart of intrinsic motivation. Many of these kiddos have faced so much failure that success seems unattainable. To rebuild, give your students a feeling of mastery, even on little things. Clear routines allow transitioning from activity to activity with confidence until strugglers feel classroom-savvy.

Providing specific and constructive feedback is another way to build competence. Rick Wormeli, educational author and speaker, says that to give our kiddos a true feeling of success, we must observe, honor, and reflect on their work, and help them to set goals to improve on it. For example: "Trina, I noticed that when we read the first few chapters of your novel, you asked questions on your sticky notes. This shows me that you are really wondering about your reading. Have you found answers to any of these questions? As you read the next chapter, let's make a goal." Suggest a few ideas if she's stuck, and let her choose an attainable goal, promising to reconnect in a few days to monitor her success.

And succeed she will. If even one of Trina's teachers meets her with the attitude of, "I'm going to get to know you, kid. I'm going to give you a chance to be a part of this community and to feel successful," she will respond. The biggest challenge is changing our mindset so that she can change hers. There are no kids who are "just not motivated." They do not exist. Each one of them has a story. It's our job to read it, learn it, and help them to use it as power, not as a prison.

What success stories about building intrinsic motivation in resistant learners can you share?

Was this useful? (4)

Comments (34) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

I'm glad that you were able to glean so much from this blog, Sophia! It means a lot to hear that my words were motivating to edutopia readers. What is most important, however, is that the words, in practice, actually make an impact. Please keep in touch and let me know how things are going this year.

Stella Hastings's picture

Dr. Greene has been a lifeline for my family as we have a young learner that is very much 'outside the box' as far as multiple areas of learning. I was excited to see a link to his article (which is a preview of his "Lost at School" book - the educator's version of Dr. Greene's "The Explosive Child"). However, the link that you provide goes to a dead page. Here is the URL that is supposed to be there:

Both this link and the @readingisswagg link aren't working. This is such a good intro into Dr. Greene's approach that I would hate for someone to miss it.

Be sure to check out his not-for-profit site - - for access to Dr. Greene's weekly online call-in radio show (one for parents, one for educators). Great resources, absolutely free!!

Thank you.

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

Hi Stella! Thank you so much for those updated links. I can't believe I missed that! I apologize to those of you who have tried to get that link. I'm loving his work, and I'm glad that a reader recognizes it. Thanks again!!!

Stella Hastings's picture

You bet! Dr. Greene's book has literally changed not only the way I parent, but also the way I approach my University students, many of whom enter college with a variety of 'lagging skills.'

If you've not yet spent time on his site - - please do so! There is such a plethora of info there, including videos of Dr. Greene's presentations at various conferences, as well as testimonials by teachers and administrators who have turned behavior issues around by implementing his CPS model (now called Collaborative, Proactive Solutions). Best of all, it is all free!

And, you can't get any better than knowing that Dr. Greene is a phone call away via his online radio show! You get immediate responses to your questions and concerns. There is also a Contact page on his site where you can send him an email - he answers them!!!

For any educator dealing with a student like my son - behavior issues interrupt the classroom and easily turn aggressive - I highly recommend Dr. Greene's work. Thank you, Heather, for highlighting this important topic and for updating the link!

Deanna Jay's picture

I worry about teachers spending valuable time trying to determine a child's 'preferred' style of learning when this is a non-evidence based practice. It's best we teach using evidence based programs and not buy into VAK, brain gym, right and left brain and so many other invalid programs.

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

Hi Deanna, you have valid thoughts. Being an eighteen year veteran of education, I've grown to take "evidence based" with a grain of salt. Evidence-based programs may be good for driving up test scores in some cases, but ultimately that may be all they're good for. We are so driven to compete that we forget that test scores are not the only thing we are producing in public ed. We are producing human beings who need confidence and self-reliance. That doesn't always happen unless you can dig into the core of what a learner needs and prefers and educate that learn about himself. I'd say that not all of our kiddos NEED the kind of care of which I speak in the blog to be academic, but the ones who aren't academically sound may. Each of them is different, and this is one way to approach them. I have a strong feeling about digging into a child's core to build passion for learning. Not all of our kiddos are going to benefit from any one approach.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I have read recently about a lack of official evidence, but I too wonder how valid that is. Personally, on an elementary level, I have taught to different learning styles and seen a difference. I have sat across from students trying to learn something where many are understanding it, but a subset simply are struggling. Then I change my approach and make it come to life by having them act it out or sing it or I provide them a visual or hands-on way. Time and time again I have seen successful learning take place in those situations. I've also noticed when I give only verbal directions, a certain group of students follows. However when I add a visual clue I get a secondary group of students following correctly as well. So I strive to do things verbally and visually when I can.

I've also experienced learning style differences first hand. When I was in school many students learned adequately, but I struggled. It was not so much hands on and visual back in the 1970's and I strongly believe had it been I would have seen MUCH more success. Even today if you talk something out with me with no visual or hands-on, I struggle in a major way.

Stewart Wood's picture

Deanna makes a valid comment. I was surprised to see the line: "Learning your students' preferences and making them aware will empower them to learn and produce." Since students do not have modality learning styles (see work by Daniel Willingham and other cognitive scientists), how can they be empowered by an awareness of them? As learners are constantly developing interests and skills, asking them to consider their preferences for learning is akin to identifying their learning disability. It's the content and task that drives learning, not some imaginary style.

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

John, I agree with you on a much of what you're saying. The key really is to hit as many modes as possible to draw in a variety of students with a variety of strengths.

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

Stewart, I will respectfully disagree with your claim that learning styles are imaginary and that people cannot be empowered by their awareness of their strengths and preferences. Just like with one's style in clothing, when you're allowed to express yourself the way you want or need, you feel validated and accepted - especially when they react positively to those. A need to learn comes from something far deeper than a task. It comes from a desire to better oneself. Although tasks and content will often make the learner appear motivated, once the task is done, the likelihood that the learner will continue to pursue learning in other directions is small. It is my experience that unless we can find a way to build our students' intrinsic motivation, the learner may fall back into the same pattern of resistance he/she was in before the learning took place.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.