3 Ways to Motivate an Unmotivated Student

3 Ways to Motivate an Unmotivated Student

Parent working to motivate your son

1. Re-define Goals for Motivation.

“you are so smart, if you just worked a little bit you would get an ‘A’”!

One of the main variables that will impact student decision making, goal striving, and motivation is is what psychologists refer to as “self-worth”. Self-worth, in the context of education-psychology, is a person’s judgment of their dignity and/or aptitude. 

When a student receives a low grade on an assignment, after little to no studying, one of the most common responses from parents is “you are so smart, if you just worked a little bit you would get an ‘A’”! 

In this case, most parents are (with a kind-heart) hoping to boost the self-worth of their student. Unfortunately, however, this language could lead the student to develop an unhelpful pattern: “If I do not study and fail, my parents will tell me I’m smart (but lazy)”. Since we as a society value “smart people”, this will only reinforce the pattern. Furthermore, the student may develop a fear: “If I DO study and fail, my parents will think I am dumb!” This further reinforces the student’s inhibitions to study. Since the student receives a “self-worth-reward” for NOT studying and fears shame in the case of studying, the student’s incentives are completely misaligned. 

The best way to avoid the aforementioned problem of “misaligned self-worth rewards” is to re-define our goals for our students and subsequently the language we use to discuss these goals. If our objective is simply for our student to work hard, it is wise to put our goal directly (and EXCLUSIVELY) on hard work. A parent might try saying the following to a student before a test: “As long as I know you studied for 1-hour before the test, I don’t really care what grade you get.” 

By redefining our goals, we can make clear our expectations to our student, AND we can free our student of the toxic notion that working hard yet receiving a low grade is an indication of personal (self-worth) failure. 

2. Promote Internal Attribution for Motivation

“My kid is struggling with the class because his teacher is horrible!’”

It is not uncommon for a student to find themselves in a class with a teacher who they do not like. This lack of connection could be rooted in personal difference, apathy on the part of the educator (or student), or a host of other complex interpersonal variables. The reality is that humans are complicated and not everyone will get along! That said, we run the risk of leading our student to lose motivation when we are publicly dismissive of a teacher. It is not uncommon for parents to say (often CORRECTLY!) “My kid is struggling with the class because his teacher is horrible!” While this could very certainly be the case, verbal expression of the issue will lead a student to feel that “trying isn’t worth it”.

It is not uncommon “in the real world” for someone to have an incompetent boss, an abrasive teammate, or an unpleasant colleague. Still, none of these situations warrant giving up on a goal. It is incredibly valuable to learn how to navigate and thrive in less-than-optimal situations. 

When a student expresses dislike for a teacher, whether, for pedagogical or personal reasons, I give them the following advice: “Get as high of a grade in the class as you can”! This advice hinges on one key reality: If you have not put effort into the class, your criticisms will be dismissed; however, if you work hard people will pay attention!” In other words, if a student with poor class attendance and poor grades criticizes a teacher, most people will not take the criticism seriously; however, if the star student makes the same criticism people will listen! 

Put simply, being dedicated to the class of a teacher you do not like, positions you well to express your discontent with the class! 

3. Work with Mindfulness for Motivation

"The biggest factor influencing student motivation is simply maturity!"

It is no secret that one of the biggest factors influencing student motivation is simply maturity! As adolescents grow, so do critical regions of the brain involved in long-term planning, decision making, and self-concept. While for the most part, these developments just take time, a mindfulness-practice can be an amazing way to nurture all these key regions of the brain. 

Mindfulness will train students to work skillfully with test anxiety, interpersonal struggles, boredom, and stress!

If you are new to mindfulness and don’t know where to begin, consider exploring some of our mindfulness courses. We have a mindfulness-based ACT® course to help students prepare for the college-entrance standardized test. Granite offers a course titled “Mindfulness for Academic Achievement®” which (as the name might suggest) is all about finding academic achievement through mindfulness. Finally, we even have a course that empowers adults to become certified “Mindfulness-Based Educators” (a great opportunity if you – as a parent – want to gain insight on guiding your student to a mindfulness practice).


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