George Lucas Educational Foundation

Student Motivation

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I have a question for all my fellow educators out there.

A little background: I teach 1st grade in a high-poverty, high minority, economically disadvantaged school. My kids go home and do not get much, if any, help with work or hear many positive comments made about school and education. Our town is brimming with generational poverty and lack of education.

I have one little guy which I think struggles with ADD/ADHD nothing diagnosed just a hunch based on work and classroom observations.

His biggest problem, however, is motivation. This poor guy has no motivation to do any type of school work. He is defeated before he begins. When I try to get him on track with his work, the first excuse out of his mouth is usually, "I can't....something" Read this, write, figure it out. His other go to excuse is, it's too hard.

While it's too hard may be a legitimate excuse for this child because he is working below grade level, I don't accept it because he does not even try. It would be different for me if I saw him putting forth some effort. However, what he chooses to do is sit at his desk and do nothing (some of this is his focusing problem) and then complain and say he can't do it.

He is more capable than he believes because he will work if someone sits next to him and holds his hand through every step of the process (which is not necessary because he is more capable than that).

So what all this comes down to, is what do you all do to motivate students in your classroom? Or what do you do to help students who are down on themselves believe they can do it?

Any thoughts or insights would great!

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Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Lindzy T

I'd like to make a couple of suggestions to help you with your motivation issues. Your problem is far too big to answer in this format, I suggest reading my book, I wrote specifically to improve motivation with children like the one you describe. It's called, Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivating Urban Youth, and can be found at

Here are some brief ideas. The first has to do with the way you see the issue. I suggest from reading your question that is it is preferable for you to stop looking at your little guy's refusal to work as an excuse and see it as a symptom of a much larger problem. Value judgments will only prevent you from finding strategies that might help. I find that with students like this, it is better to change your strategy from trying to get him to do all his work, and focus on getting him to do just one small assignment or a small part of a larger assignment. and gradually build over time. See partial work as progress rather than failure.

My second suggestion is to focus on getting him to start. I find that for most students, the hardest part is simply getting started. Most of us put off things we rather not do, but once we start, we usually continue. Think of a sink full of dirty dishes. Hard to start, but once we do, we usually keep going. Use the guessing technique I described in my post When he says, "I can't do this," tell him not to do any work, just guess at the answer even if it might sound silly. Then work with him to use the guess to lead to finding the right answer. Here's an example:

Teacher: Who was the first president of the United States?
Student: Justin Beiber (silly guess).
Teacher: Well, he is famous like a president, but maybe you can guess someone who is in politics, not entertainment. Remember, All I want is a guess, no work involved.

Getting him to guess draws him into the process. Go as far as you can and then keep using the guessing technique with other questions. Do not give up.

Another strategy is to refuse to give up. Tell him, "I can see you are very determined not to try, but I'm more stubborn than you are, and I refuse to give up on you because you are worth it." Say this two or three times a week and never stop asking him questions and giving him work. Tell him he has to do only one question and he can choose which one. Then gradually build to doing more questions.

I hope this is helpful to you. I have taught many students like your little guy and what saved me was seeing them as a challenge, not as a problem. Just trying to reach them made me a better teacher for all my students.

Bruce Tabashneck's picture
Bruce Tabashneck
Committed to Change, Creativity and Empowerment

We need to talk and work together. This involves involving more resources who traditionally do little. It goes beyond reading a book or writing a behavior plan.

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