Motivating the Unmotivated: How to Motivate Students

Our first reaction with students who are unmotivated is frustration and annoyance. It’s easy to think about just throwing that student out of our room so we don’t have to deal with him or her. We have brilliant lesson plans and creative presentations ready and a student who threatens that immediately raises our blood pressure. What can we do to motivate students? Is there even a cure?

Motivating students in a technology filled 21st century classroom can be challenging! So how can you get student engagement and motivation in your elementary classroom? Check out these ideas and tips to motivate students!


An Analogy to Understand the Unmotivated

Let’s start with an analogy. I hate cooking. I hate cooking with a passion and would rather swim in a tank full of piranhas than cook! That’s pretty extreme, you say? It may be, but it illustrates my hatred perfectly. I recall a time when I was little that I desired to make popcorn. It was long before the days of the microwave and we did not have a fancy popcorn maker. No, we had to place popcorn kernels in a pan with oil, shake the pan around over the flame, and wait for it to pop-pop-pop. It was the precursor to the Jiffy Pop over the fire. I wanted butter on my popcorn, and I thought it had to be like putting butter on mashed potatoes. You slice a pat off the stick of butter, and you toss it on your popcorn. Quick and simple. Oh, did I hear the roar of laughter. The people in the next county heard the roar of laughter. How embarrassing! I guess I was wrong. Later growing up I struggled more and more with cooking, having little incidents here and there that caused more laughter and ridicule. It was crystal clear I was terrible at cooking.

Imagine if my administrator desired for me to put on a spaghetti dinner for the staff. I would be horrified. I would try to think of every excuse possible to get out of it. I’d have anxiety. I would be very concerned about how I would bomb the cooking experience yet again. Clearly, I would not have the motivation to cook for my colleagues.

Similarly, students who are unmotivated often feel they are not smart. They have experienced failure time and time again and with each failed attempt they just feel worse. They begin protecting their self-worth by acting out or giving up. The fear of failure is so intensely great that they would rather just not try than take the risk of trying, failing, and feeling “dumb.” Further, they feel their effort will not make a difference. The reality is, most people aren’t going to keep doing something over and over if it makes them feel horrible. Most importantly, without perceived value or purpose, students are going to be less interested in offering their best effort.

So, how do we respond? What actions can we take to motivate students?

Sometimes teachers will decide to take on more of an authoritarian role with unmotivated students. “I’m the teacher and you must do this!” “This is important!” “Do you want to fail?” I’m sure we have all uttered a few of these lines from time to time. This does not help to motivate students. Instead, try this — a M.A.P. to motivate the unmotivated.

Using a M.A.P to Motivate the Unmotivated Students

M-  Mastery.  Students need to have success to build their confidence. We cannot do this without first seeking to understand our students, learning their stories, and problem-solving together. Build those relationships and have empathy for the student and his or her life. Try to see the best in them and provide that little boost that he or she needs through a little note or phone call. Set your students up for successes when you know they have the correct answer to help build their confidence. Encourage the growth mindset and help students understand that intelligence is NOT fixed. Place a chair next to your desk, decorate it, and call it the smart chair. Explain to students that smart people don’t always have the right answers, but they look for answers. Most importantly, celebrate successes, no matter how small.

A-  Autonomy.  Everyone needs choices. We are more motivated when we feel we have some control over our situation and a choice in the matter. This is very much like parenting. I would never offer my son or daughter a choice that I did not want them to choose. Do the same in the classroom. By providing choices, students can choose tasks that are tailored to their learning style. The more ways children feel they can express themselves, the more confident and motivated they are. When you motivate students, you cannot force them to feel or act a certain way. You must offer them the choice, and let them choose to be motivated themselves.

P-  Purpose.  Students need to feel that everything they are learning is relevant. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard my own children say, “What’s the point?” and “We are never going to use this!” If you think back to when you were in high school, how relevant did you feel what you were learning was? If you are an educator, and yet you felt it was irrelevant from time to time, imagine how irrelevant it feels to an unmotivated student. Students see no point if it does not somehow relate to their lives.

Instead of looking at the unmotivated as being difficult, consider the challenge. It’s a life or death situation! All right. Maybe it’s not, but it’s just as important! Are you tenacious? Are you passionate? As the year gets started, decide ahead of time that you will do what it takes to motivate students, to motivate the unmotivated!

Need more ideas to help motivate your students? Check out my posts on engagement!

2 Responses

  1. Some really useful reminders here about motivating in the classroom – thank you for sharing. I'm going to work on the 'A' and making sure I always give choices, even if they are small, so the children feel they have ownership of the task.
    Growing Little Learners


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