What to Do When Students Are Not Motivated!

Motivation! Ah…if I had the magic pill that would light a fire under students and children, I would certainly bottle it instead of writing these articles in the wee hours of the morning and night.

This is a hot topic and the root of several questions I have received since announcing this project a couple of weeks ago. Of course, it is also a problem that we at SOAR encounter regularly.

So, How Can We Motivate Students To Care About School?

Actually, I think the real question is: Why don’t students care about school? If we don’t understand the root of the problem, we have no hope of addressing it. In my opinion, there are three main reasons why students develop apathy towards school:

  1. They do not understand the relevance of what they are learning to real life. Students who suffer from lack-o-relevance are mulling through these questions all of the time: “Why do I have to learn this stuff? How will it ever help me?”
  2. They have had negative experiences with school, struggling to “keep up.” Instead of perpetuating the feeling of being stupid, it is easier on their pride if they act as if they don’t care. It doesn’t take long before they don’t. The struggling-student-turned-apathetic deals with this question: “Why should I put any effort into school if I am going to fail anyway?”  …..and/or
  3. They are seeking some level of control and use schoolwork as leverage to gain it, especially within their family. They know that parents place a lot of value on academics, but that is the one thing over which they have control. When they refuse to do homework or put effort into studying, they become a puppeteer, controlling the strings on the marionette within their family. (Did you know that the technical term for a marionette’s puppeteer is “manipulator?”)

Many students are likely suffering from a combination of two or three of these apathies. If possible, ask them point-blank, “Why don’t you care about school?”

Depending on your timing, their mood, and their ability to articulate their feelings, you may very well get a straight-up answer. (I know I have been surprised over the years!) Many times, I don’t get more than a grunt as students shrug, “Uh-uh-uh.”

However, I have often received some very candid answers. I know one child who told his mom frankly, “… Because school is they only way I can control you.”

What Can We Do About These Situations?

Apathy will only get worse over time if it is not addressed. The following strategies can help students reverse course:

  • To address Lack-O-Relevance, draw real-world connections to as many school tasks as possible. Explain how specific knowledge and strategies have helped you become an independent adult. Get them involved in job shadowing and actively talking to adults in professions that interest them. Perhaps encourage them to get a part-time job. Often, this is eye-opening on many levels; they not only see the real-world application to many school-related tasks, they also learn the value of an education when they realize that they don’t want to be doing this part-time job forever!

Introduce them to the concept of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. (If you are not familiar with this, do a quick internet search to learn about the eight intelligences. There is an inventory for students available here.)

Learning more about the various intelligences is eye-opening for students. Drawing connections between a student’s strengths, according to the Multiple Intelligences, and potential careers is extremely helpful to overcome issues of relevance.

We teach Multiple Intelligences as part of our regular study skills program and we have seen this information transform students! It is very powerful!

  • For students who struggle, it will come as no surprise to you that I believe in teaching them how to study, learn, and organize. Yes, that’s right…study skills! Students have no comprehension of the fact they can learn *strategically.* They have used strategies in sports, video games, and when manipulating their parents, but when it comes to schoolwork, they have nada.

Not only can students become more strategic learners through study skills, the use of strategies gives them a greater sense of control over their school work, which ultimately inspires motivation!

  • For the control-seekers, give them what they want… some control! The best way to do this in an appropriate, constructive manner is to provide choices. When a student is given choices, everyone wins. He wins because he feels like he has a say in the matter. You win because you have limited his choices to two (or three) options, all of which you consider acceptable.

For example, if your child has a science test on Friday, you may suggest, “Would you like to study for your test an hour on Tuesday and Thursday, or would you like to spend a half-hour studying every night this week?”

Another option…“You will need to study for your science test tonight. Would you like to do it before or after dinner?”

Even letting your child choose what to have for dinner can go a long way towards rebuilding communication and sending the message to your child that you value his input.

Teachers might give an apathetic child the choice of where to sit in class (between two specific seats, not just “anywhere”) or the choice of a deadline for a simple homework assignment. Again these are minor choices, but they speak loudly!

What About The Students Who Are Deeply Vested In Being An Underachiever?

You will be surprised at how far the few steps outlined above will go with many children, especially for parents. But some students may be in situations that go more deeply than the 1100 words of this article can go.

In order to provide more insight to the topic of motivating children, I have been reading a book over the last week called, “Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child.” It has been highly recommended to me over the years and this article was the perfect “push” to finally start reading it.

-Susan Kruger


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