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Creating Structure to Motivate Students

motivate students

Creating Structure to Motivate Students

A Guide for Parents and Teachers

motivate studentsUnmotivated students can be a huge problem for educators. It’s far from easy to teach kids even when circumstances are good, and with the added difficulty of cajoling students who would rather not do the work in the first place, teaching can become an apparently insurmountable challenge. When faced with such a challenge, it can be tempting to get negative—to rely on consequences—but that’s the last thing you want to do. Unmotivated students won’t react well to heavy punishments. What you want instead is to create structures within which students can learn to motivate themselves. In this post I’ll explore a few ways to do that.

Why it’s Important to Stay Constructive with Unmotivated Students

Students can lose motivation for a lot of different reasons. In some cases they have friends who are bad influences, which we’ve written about before. Sometimes they have attention or learning disorders that are influencing their performance in class, and if you’re a parent you should look into that. Most often, though, they’re just not seeing the results they expect.

As a student, if you’re disappointed in school—whether you get a bad grade on a test or your teacher doesn’t seem happy with your work—it can set off a cycle of demoralization. Kenneth Shore has a good post on this at Education World that explains the phenomenon: in many cases, an unmotivated student is a demoralized student.

For students, schoolwork can be a source of anxiety and frustration. If you’re doing badly, it can be tempting to checkmotivate students out. If you insist that you don’t really care about the work, then it doesn’t hurt as much when you get a bad grade. Obviously, this becomes self-reinforcing: the more demoralized you get, the less you work, and the less you work, the worse you do, leading to further demoralization.

It should be clear that reflexively punishing kids who are stuck in this cycle is not going to help—you’ll only be making things harder for them, which will contribute to their anxiety and frustration. The only way to snap students out of it is to be positive. You need to give them the sense that they can do the work, that it should be a source of fulfillment and not anxiety. If you can do that, you’ve done 90% of the work it takes to motivate your students. But where do you start?

In many cases, an unmotivated student is a demoralized student. @YesPhonics Click to Tweet

How to Set Up Positive Structures for Your Kids

In a post on Empowering Parents, Debbie Pincus writes that if you find yourself nagging or cajoling your child, repeatedly getting angry with them, or trying to get them to change, you are not going to get the results you want. Even if they go along with what you want, they won’t become any more self-motivated. We talked about something similar in our post on spanking: correcting bad behavior doesn’t work if the only reasons kids are behaving well is fear of a negative outcome. Remove that negative outcome, and you’re right back where you started. This is a less severe case of the same phenomenon.

motivating students #3What you want to do instead is give your students something to work for. Pincus gives 10 ways to do this in another post at Empowering Parents; feel free to read that in detail if you want, but I’ll summarize some of her ideas here. In general, Pincus wants you to give your students real reasons to get motivated. For example, consider applying what Pincus calls the “when you” rule—“when you finish your homework, you can watch TV” or something along those lines. This will not only prevent your child from distancing themselves from their work, it will give them a reward when they do finish it. Over time the pattern of finishing work will hopefully become self-reinforcing, and then your child will reap actual rewards—academic success and a growing sense of self-worth. At that point, with any luck, you’ll have broken the cycle of undermotivation.

Another good way to break the cycle of undermotivation is to teach philosophy. We’ve written about this before, but it’s always good to be reminded: teaching philosophy to your kids can give you a different and more effect way of speaking to them. It might be easier to get a student to stay motivated if you’ve taught them ethics, for example, beforehand.

For more resources on teaching philosophy to your kids, look at, a rich collection of tools for philosophy teachers and parents.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

photo credit: Chris and Jenni Working on letter writing via photopin (license)

photo credit: twentysixcats Preschool with Caroline via photopin (license)

photo credit: Pictures by Ann Alphabet Painting Project for 4-H via photopin (license)

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About Griffin Johnson

Griffin Johnson grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to college in the suburbs of Minneapolis before moving west in 2015. He tutors writing at the University of Montana and writes about education, literature, movies and pop culture.

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