Motivating the Kids With Zero Motivation

Motivation is a big component of our human make up.  People have different beliefs about motivation and whether it is something you are "born with" or if you are able to influence your own motivation level.  I, personally, believe it is a combo of both just like I believe that both nature and environment both play a role in a persons ability to maintain self control.


I wanted to do a little research about motivation and I found this great article HERE.  It helped me understand the different kinds of motivation and how this can apply to our classroom.  It also told me that what I believed about motivation (nature AND environment) is totally true!  There are different kinds of motivation, and because of this, sometimes it is something your born with and sometimes it is something you are exposed to.  Let me break it down for you:

  • Intrinsic motivation- This type of motivation is self sustaining and comes from within.  An example of this in the school setting is  when a student feels proud for completing a project or doing good on a an assignment.  That internal feeling is intrinsic motivation.  An example of this in my former classroom was when a student found pleasure in completing a task box schedule all on their own.
  • Extrinsic motivation- This type of motivation comes from the environment and expectations that your peers set. Examples of this in the school setting is when a student feels the need to do well because their parents promised an Xbox if they got good grades.  An example of this in my former classroom was when a student competed a worksheet following a first/then card so that they could earn their reward.
In the business world, an individuals level of success most often correlates to that persons motivation level. This is also similar in the classroom.  Students who are successful in the classroom are often highly motivated individuals.  Now, with everything, there are exceptions to this!

When I was in the classroom, I taught students with severe disabilities and I ran my whole class using a token economy system.  In order for the token economy system to be effective, students need to be motivated by something.  There are some steps we can take to ensure students have something to be motivated by.

1.  Conduct a preference assessment.  This can be the SIMPLEST way to find motivators for your classroom.  Rather than elaborate here, I'm going to send you to my friend, Erin's, post HERE all about conducting a preference assessment in the beginning of the year.  You can take her suggestions and apply them to any time of the year.  Preferences are always change and motivation can change.

2.  Use all your resources! If you struggle with the preference assessment in determining a motivation for a student, talk to prior teachers.  Teachers, therapists, staff and parents can be an invaluable resource for you.  They have spent WAY more time with the student than you have, so lets face it, they know more!  Utilize your resources! 

3.  Kill them with kindness.  Don't underestimate the power of motivation and kindness.  Sometimes a little reboot is needed.  So often verbal praise and motivation is looked over when searching for motivators.  Don't overestimate the power of verbal praise and a high five!  Try something a little simpler and just give them a high five and a good job often!

4.  Let the student lead you.  If you've talked to previous staff, and conducted a preference assessment and you've tried killing them with kindness-- another approach may be needed.  What happens if you let the kiddo run free in your classroom.  Simply follow the child and see what peeks their interest.  Is it the most random container of clips at the blue table?  Is it the tissue box?  Is it the computer keyboard?  Is it the puzzles?  Whatever it is, follow their lead, and watch what they do with it!  If a child likes the keyboard, maybe they just want a toy with buttons.  If the kiddo loves pulling tissues out of the tissue box, maybe they like the act of puling out of something and you can get a little sensory toy that allows them to do this appropriately.   The list goes on, but you get the point.  Sometimes these kid will surprise you.  This doesn't mean you can only do this with a student who is lacking motivation.  You can do this when a kiddo needs a change in their plan!

5.  Spread excitement.  If you've tried everything else,  move on to the other kids.  In the past when one of my students were having a very challenging day and nothing seemed to be working, I would praise the other students.  If it was a whole group lesson I would simply make my rounds and put on an exaggerated performance and give all the kiddo's that were on task a high five.  Is a high five not enough? How about pass out a stuffed animal to each kid that is on task?  Or, some play doh. Not into toys? How about excuse the students who are on task to some extra time on the play ground?  I personally did not use food as reinforcers, but this could also be an opportunity to pass out a healthy treat to the kids on task to get the student who is struggling's attention.  Whatever reinforcer you are using with your other students, give the student who is struggling a chance to earn that reinforcer.  Simply use a first/then card to prompt the student to complete the task before earning the desired reinforcer.

6.  Lower task expectations for a short time.  If the student is going through a challenging time, sometimes we need to revisit the task expectation.  Is the task too hard?  Is it too challenging?  Sometimes by providing a simpler task, the student will be able to be successful.  With a little taste of success it can help the student to remember what it is like to be rewarded and find that motivation on their own again.

7.  Decrease the time of the task.  Sometimes it is not the level of difficulty that is upsetting the student, it could be the duration of the task.  Try cutting the time down and rewarding sooner.  Slowly over time, increase the work time until they are able to self motivate!

Teaching students to self motivate takes time.  We all strive to self motivate, even as adults.  However, it does not always come naturally or easy.  Start by setting up some form of a token economy system in your classroom.  When observing a student and trying to find a motivator that works for them and that is suitable for your classroom, don't forget the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Knowing what the students needs may be will help you to determine how you can help them best!

Where to start first?  Check out Erin's Preference assessment by clicking below!





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