George Lucas Educational Foundation

Motivate the unmotivated

Motivate the unmotivated

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I struggle every year with at least one student who just has that "I don't really care" attitude! I try everything from bribery to being a good listener. I try new angles that will maybe connect with the student or shed some light on what will motivate them to move into action. Does anyone have any good ideas.... new or old that have worked?

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Monique's picture

When I taught fourth grade, I had several students who needed positive reinforcement and praise to succeed. Yet, a sticker wasn't going to cut it. I decided to make a special bulletin board called "Student of the Day." Each day, I chose a student displaying good behavior and put their name and picture on the board. I also included words that describe each student and what made them special. For the rest of the day, the student got to line up first for lunch and recess and took home a special award. This worked wonders in my class. Although it took a lot of prep work on my part, it really helped to motivate my students.

Michael Striker's picture

There are few classes that I have taught which do not have one student who strives to lash out because of boredom, attention, or anything else. I had a student this last semester that did not agree with a point system I began in my second semester seventh grade art class. The system was started to help reduce the little outbursts in class that seemed to slowly compile throughout the last semester. The discipline system had a list of actions that resulted in one, two, three, or four points depending on the severity of their actions. Once they accumulated four points they received a detention. Since some students could just have a bad week I decided to allow them to come in early and help out with cleaning or organizing before school so that they could take one point away. I figured that by coming in on their own time they would take responsibilities for their actions and deserve some reconciliation. The student in question decided that he did not want to work in class and instead challenge the assigned exercise for that day. Insubordination is worth four points so he earned a detention. The next day he walked in and i sat him down next to me so that I could first of all get to know his reasons for acting out and secondly watch him closely and push him so that he could make up for lost work. When I was sitting down with the student I began to learn that his goal in life was to be a UFC fighter and that he felt that nothing else was important. I, of course warned him of the dangers and then discussed with him the importance of learning other subjects so that he could learn how to become a responsible adult and how to be successful in any career he choses. Most importantly I discussed the importance of being properly prepared for each task he wants to achieve. He did not like participating in the exercises before, and even though he may not like the tasks, he has begun to work harder in order to be better prepared for the project we will be working on.

Sci Guy Jon's picture
Sci Guy Jon
Boarding School R.A., Informal Science Educator & M. Ed. Student

In my past experiences as a middle school teacher, adolescent mentor and summer camp instructor, I found it significantly more challenging to encourage unmotivated adolescents than elementary school kids. I often found myself saying that these students should have developed their own innate motivation and responsibility for learning by this stage in their education. However, as I reflected on how the home environments of these students are significantly different from what I experienced growing up, I became humble and understanding. It saddened me that I interacted with several successful adult role models on a daily basis outside of school as an adolescent whereas adolescents now-a-days sometimes go days or weeks without conversing with such an individual outside of school.

As many of you have pointed out, building relationships with these students is key. According to the facilitator of a recent professional development training I attended, current research suggests that giving a child four effective praises for every constructive redirection is an efficient means of building a trusting, caring relationship with that child. It is only through such relationships will you find effective ways to empower these commonly neglected students. In my experiences, private personalized praises have been more effective with older students than public praises. (Several adolescents fear damaging their image by looking smart or well-behaved in front of their peers.) Examples include emailing or mailing reports of good behavior home, passing out praises on post-its while students are working independently, passing on reports of good behavior to other teachers and administrators, and complimenting them during transitions on their accomplishments and hobbies outside of school. They have to sense that you truly care about them in order for them to be receptive to your direction.

"For unless students sense that we really value them and respect them (even as we disapprove strongly of certain ways that they may behave), there is no way that they will ever trust us and open themselves up to hear what we have to say" (Kottler, Zehm & Kottler, 2005, p. 12).

"When students perceive that their teachers believe in their ability, students begin to think of achievement as related to effort, not just to innate talent...young people you perceive intelligence as unfixed and changeable are more likely to tackle difficult tasks and to rebound from failure" (Nieto, 2003, p. 43).

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

Kristi's picture

Thanks for all of the great suggestions! I am going to bring the scout idea back to my classroom. I agree with all the comments that highlight the importance of developing the teacher / student relationship. This is the key to motivating students and promoting positive behavior. Something that has worked for me in the past is eating lunch with students. I teach second grade and I had my challenging student and another student from my class eat lunch in my room. It helped the students develop positive relationships with each other and both students really opened up during this time. I found that my challenging student really looked forward to our lunches together!

Marie Max's picture

I agree with your strategy. One time I had a student who was ornery and unmotivated, to a point of being nearly belligerent. On day three of class (a summer program), I endowed her with the position of being my class materials distributor. She soon shared this honor with other students and was an endearing, regular participant from that point on.

Marie Max's picture

I am an art teacher working on certification and am interning at an orphanage/school for teens who have been badly abused. The newcomers are almost beyond reach. I observed that the disrespect for adults is acceptable and high volumes of disruption in class is common. I was eventually able to get the students involved in a thought provoking, simple, fun activity and then they were fine. But to preserve time, what can I do, initially, to get their undivided attention without 'out-yelling' them or ignoring the behavior (because they are just too loud and unmotivated)? Ring a bell, stand on my head?

June's picture

There seems to be a recurring theme here about getting to know your student on a personal level. I agree that students have to know you care about them and respect them. When they see you as more than their teacher . . .also a friend, trust and respect will follow. Keep showing students that you expect them to succeed, and they will begin to believe it too. I've really enjoyed reading all these wonderful ideas for reaching difficult students.

June's picture

It seems there is a recurring theme here of building a relationship with your students and creating trust and respect in order to reach the more difficult students. I agree that our students must know that we truly care about them before they will give us their best and listen to what we are saying. I've enjoyed reading all these wonderful suggestions to help with student motivation.

Ashley Mabbitt's picture

I currently began a Master's degree program and have begun looking at what keeps teachers going and how to be that "expert" teacher. I too, struggle with motivitating those few students who truly seem to simply not care. In one of the books we were assigned to read, I was asked to focus on not just teaching, but being an effective communicator, helper, learner, relationship specialist, and how to avoid burnout. I am a firm beliver that through effective listening and communicating a teacher can get to the bottom of why the child is unmotivated, and thus motivate them.

Lynette's picture

For my students, I always try to find out their interests and ask how they are to build a realtionship with them. Once they trust me and know that I care, students seem to be more motivated because they like you. However, I try to do a lot of real-life examples that involve things my students like. I still find this a hard thing to accomplish. I always need to find new ideas.

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