The Myth of Unmotivation

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First, let’s get something straight. Everyone is motivated about something. You were motivated to check your phone countless times today. Kids will spend hours playing video games, texting friends, or maybe skateboarding.  But maybe you’ve uttered one of these statements about a student:

  • He’s just not motivated
  • I just can’t get him to want to learn
  • She’s not even trying
  • She’s a kind child, but she just sits there staring into space.

There’s more to it, folks; more than laziness or lack of motivation. Don’t mark them with that label. Take a step back and first, uncover.

Uncover the Issue

When a child appears to be unmotivated, it is usually due to unseen reasons. Most children want to do well, and if they don’t think they can, they may say they don’t care. Adults are no different; we like to do our best, and if we cannot, we get discouraged, become disinterested which may seem like apathy. This results in finding an activity (usually unchallenging) to provide a sense of accomplishment but provides little to no effort.

Sadly, the answer to a “lack of motivation” from a child usually appears as a behavior problem; then it is dealt with accordingly as opposed to finding the root of the issue. Ken Barish, PhD says that when we “understand the child’s lack of motivation as a problem of demoralization, [we can look for] helpful solutions.” Moreover, knowing that all children are motivated in some way, we can find a way to peak that curiosity to learn.

Create the Urge

We cannot control a child’s home life or what may be causing distractions, disillusionment, or discouragement. But, we can control our classrooms. So let’s do an inventory of ourselves to see how we are doing in our classrooms to meet the needs of these so-called unmotivated kids. Let’s pretend the name of one of your unmotivated kids is Marko.

Build a Relationship

It doesn’t take a research study to show that students are motivated to work for someone with whom they have a relationship; especially if it is positive. Think of the last conversation you had with Marko. What does he care about? What gets him excited outside of school? If this student feels that he is just one big drain on the classroom and/or a behavior annoyance, then how motivated will he be to try? It was once said, rules without relationship leads to rebellion. Forget the work for now; get to know him. Ask him what he is doodling. What else does he like to draw? Follow this trail and see how you can embellish his efforts.

Offer Them Choice

Now that you have a bond with Marko, give some control over to him in what work he may do. Maybe you give him three options on how he’ll complete a task. It’s no different with parenting. People respond when they feel they have some type of autonomy and control. This gives them a sense of power.

Make It Relevant

These choices Marko receives must be relevant or have some kind of connection for his life. If he sees that this is an authentic task that has relevance for him, then perhaps he’ll be more interested. Remember, we are trying to get him to have a small success to build upon. Once we have this, then we can move on to more challenging assignments.

Celebrate Accomplishments

Record the small accomplishments, not just verbally, but with a phone call home or a post-it on his desk. Make him aware that you noticed his effort. This is what releases the dopamine in his brain and makes him want to please and achieve more. When students see something they can achieve, they won’t focus on the work being work. This is because their dopamine spikes!  It is widely known that dopamine is the pleasure chemical. “Dopamine has a biological connection to our motivation to achieve,”  according to Kevan Lee who studies the science of motivation. Dopamine flows when positive feedback is happening, so it’s key to track incremental progress; the more progress, the bigger effects of dopamine.

Therefore, with the small intervals of completion, cheer Marko on. Just like in a race, if we see the finish line as ten miles away, we’ll most likely get discouraged. But if we can see that mile marker, and be celebrated when we get there, we are more likely to want to run that next mile. On a side note, the goal is to help a student become more interested in learning. A powerful motivator is self-efficacy and talking about the joy of the results.

  • Studies have also shown that extrinsic rewards may, in the long run, hurt the motivation.
  • Barish adds, “Rewards and punishments cannot create interests or goals.” This is
  • why the right kind of feedback is so important.

Give Feedback

Finally, and this is a big one, how do you praise Marko? First, observe him. Find evidence of quality work. And remember, at first, it may be very small. If you praise Marko incessantly without specificity, he’ll see right through it. Instead, look for what is impressive based on his ability. But, only observe and respond. For example, “Marko, that is a powerful topic sentence.” Remember, these students are so used to being the focus of what they are not doing. You need to focus now not on him as a person, but a specific aspect of his work that he values or it will be fake praise. Keep it short and don’t overdo. Marko can begin to take ownership and feel a small sense of pride in accomplishment. This is a reward unto itself.

This quote says it all: “If you want to build a ship, don’t recruit the men to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” –  Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The ultimate goal is to find that spark in every student so that they can yearn to learn. We are all motivated to do something; adults and children alike. All of us are more excited to learn when we have some autonomy, when we are connected to the task with relationship and/or purpose, and when we receive accurate and timely feedback. When we find that small sense of success, the yearning to learning has begun and the myth of unmotivation has disappeared.


Dr. Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.

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