Motivating the Unmotivated

While motivation is often linked to academic achievement, the same is not necessarily true for motivation and intelligence. We are all familiar with the naturally gifted student who fails consistently, not for lack of intelligence, but because of his or her lack of motivation. These seemingly hopeless situations can be difficult for parents, especially when they know that their child has all the potential and wherewithal. But what can be done to boost motivation? How can we inspire and incite action when the foundation is nonexistent?

 

Investigate the root of the problem

Oftentimes, a lack of motivation is the result of a bigger issue. For unmotivated children, there is likely some sort of deterrent or impediment between the child and the task. Sometimes the issue stems from a learning obstacle, such as a disability or cognitive barrier. Other times, unmotivated students have had multiple or severely negative experiences in school that have caused them to be “turned off” or “checked out.” It is also possible that the child simply does not see the value in putting forth effort and exhibiting self-motivation. Whatever the case may be, parents can begin to establish motivation by examining the reason behind its absence. Talk to children about why they truly do not want to try something. Is there a reason that they are so opposed to showing effort or enthusiasm for learning? Pose the questions so that they do not sound interrogative, but instead seek to understand the child’s position.

 

Set longterm and shortterm goals

Even the most unmotivated child has some sort of goal or aspiration. Parents should tap into these interests as a means to foster motivation, both in the immediate and distant future. Ask your child what he or she would like to accomplish tomorrow. Allow that answer to span outside of the academic realm. For instance, if your child is lacking motivation in school, but shows an interest in making the club soccer team, encourage that level of interest first as a springboard. Perhaps tomorrow’s goal is to juggle the soccer ball 30 times without dropping it, but this year’s goal is to make the soccer team. Talk about how these short-term goals are essentially the building blocks towards reaching the long term goal. Hone in on the fact that practicing, strategizing, focusing, and modifying will be key for reaching that short-term goal. And that while failure and outside obstacles are going to occur, resilience and motivation are 100% controllable internal factors. Then, when the topic of academics arises, remind that unmotivated student of the steps and lengths that he went to in order to accomplish the juggling goal. Discuss how you can translate that motivation into effort towards schoolwork.

 

Express excitement and admiration when they do show motivation towards anything

Kids, especially young children, may not fully conceptualize the notion of intrinsic motivation—they don’t necessarily know why they care, they just do. To boost their understanding of building and maintaining motivation, praise their effort when they exhibit it. Acknowledge their focus and drive for whatever it may be that they’re working on—the more you point out this motivation, the more likely they are to internalize this concept of self-motivation and effort.

 

Lead by example

We all know that attitude is contagious; the same can be said for effort and motivation. When children see motivated parents with their own interests and passions, they begin to see that effort comes from a true desire to achieve, create, accomplish, and grow. Passionate people inspire those around them, so parents can certainly boost motivation at home by expressing their own efforts and motivation for their genuine interests.

 

Instruct with positive and negative consequences

Different from bribery, positive and negative consequences ensure that children learn how to take ownership for their actions and level of effort (or lack thereof). Of course, no child will be intrinsically motivated to make his bed. Instead, parents should remind children that failure to complete their chores will result in a consequence—essentially, children will recognize that they’re actually punishing themselves by choosing to neglect their tasks. Thus, they become motivated by the desire to avoid the negative consequence. Consequently, a positive outcome from doing one’s chores can boost motivation and the desire to accomplish tasks in the sense that the child connects his or her effort to the reward or positive result.

Teaching Gratitude

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Educators are often held to the lessons, objectives, and standards of our set curricula. With all that needs to be “covered,” there is likely not a ton of wiggle room. Of course we are passionate about our content areas; however, there also are often larger truths that we would like to touch upon during instruction. With such little time devoted to non-curricular instruction, it is always a nice surprise when time permits a small window to discuss things outside of the content area that are no less important.

This time of year is a beautiful one, full of family gatherings, holiday festivities, and building memories with close friends. We often become so wrapped up in the holiday spirit and merriments that we fail to look around and realize how truly fortunate we are. That said, it is a favorite activity of mine to focus some instructional time on gratitude. As a middle school teacher, I find it especially beneficial to take a bit of time to discuss this concept with my adolescent students. It is typical, and quite biological, actually, for teens to live primarily from their own perspective—taking little time to think of others before thinking of themselves. With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays in the forefront, this is the perfect time of year to give thanks.

So how do I prefer to do this in the classroom? It may sound predictable and run-of-the-mill, but my activity focusing on anonymous thank you notes proved to be very inspiring this year. Students were given as many blank gratitude notes as they wanted—nothing fancy, just a turkey saying “thank you” and a space for a brief message. The only instruction? Thank someone sincerely and anonymously for something that they did to bring positivity to you. The point is to be completely candid, while remaining anonymous. This way, the focus is on the receiver, the person for whom each student has felt grateful for in one way or another.

I assumed that many students would send thank you notes to their best friends, and many did. However, what surprised me the most were the thank you notes that went a little deeper than I had anticipated. Things that had occurred in the beginning of the year, when some students were virtual strangers, were remembered fondly. Some thank you notes indicated that one student’s kind gesture sparked a true friendship, while other notes came from students who run in completely different peer groups.

Even more surprising and heartwarming were the thank you notes that several teachers received from students. Simple, anonymous thank you notes from my thoughtful middle schoolers showed me that gratitude was something that we can all exhibit and learn more about every day. Some notes thanked a teacher simply for making learning fun; other notes thanked teachers for sharing their lunch with a student who didn’t have anything to eat. The larger take away message here was that we may not know how a small, kind gesture can turn someone’s day around. Even the slightest act of kindness proved to be memorable for many kids.

Yes, we are tasked with teaching our lessons, concepts, and topics, but the social environment that schools provide allows students and teachers to learn important life lessons as well—including gratitude.