The Challenge of the Unmotivated Student (and 5 Things to Do About It)

It is a rare school counselor who hasn’t received at least one referral ( and probably lots more!) for an unmotivated student. Usually by the time you get the referral, the teacher is at his or her wits end and has tried everything they can think of to engage the student. Now it’s your turn… What will you do?

As advocates for student success, we understand the important role motivation plays in academic achievement and personal growth. Motivated students are more engaged, resilient, and eager to learn. In short, they are usually a joy to teach and to counsel when they encounter obstacles.

Unmotivated students? Not so much.

One of the most memorable and probably most challenging students I encountered in my career was a fourth grade boy who literally slept through his entire school day and completed practically no work. Since you might be wondering, his mother reported that he did indeed stay up half the night playing video games but she had no control over this(!). As I recall he did wake up for PE, lunch and recess (when he was not required to stay inside and complete work during recess).

Everything possible was thought of and tried from numerous parent conferences, to concern for a learning disability, to rewards and consequences, etc. I’m sure you know the drill. As you might imagine, his home life was less than ideal and eventually, he simply moved away without us ever feeling that we made any progress in solving the problem. I often wonder whatever became of him as a young adult, especially when I hear of adults who mention their lack of motivation and success in school which they turned around at some point as an adult.

One example of an extremely successful adult who barely made it through high school, is Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. He is a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine. Impressive, right? He also hosts a current favorite podcast The Huberman Lab which is regularly ranked as the #1 health podcast in the world, where he discusses science and science-based tools for everyday life. In a recent interview with Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, they dive deep into the science of motivation.

Here are some valuable insights and strategies to help us inspire and empower our students:

Before delving into strategies, both Dr. Huberman and Dr. Grant differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation originates from internal desires, such as curiosity, autonomy, and a sense of mastery. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation stems from external rewards or punishments, such as grades, praise, or tangible incentives (think sticker charts and treasure boxes).

While extrinsic motivators can be effective in the short term, they may undermine intrinsic motivation if overemphasized. Adam Grant suggests that a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is crucial for sustained engagement and fulfillment.

Key Strategies to Motivate Students:

  1. Cultivate Curiosity: Encourage students to explore their interests and ask questions. Offer opportunities for hands-on learning experiences and open-ended projects that stimulate curiosity. Research by Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist, suggests that fostering curiosity promotes intrinsic motivation and a love for learning. Both Dr. Huberman and Dr. Grant emphasize the importance of facilitating curiosity with students.
  2. Provide Autonomy: Empower students by offering choices and opportunities for self-directed learning. Allow them to set goals, make decisions, and take ownership of their learning journey. Dr. Grant suggests asking the question, “On a scale of 0-10, how motivated are you to do _________?” If the answer is 1 or above, ask what keeps it from being 0? This provides a key to something that might be motivating. If the answer is 0, ask what if would take to move the number up to 1?
  3. Foster Growth Mindset: Teach students about the power of perseverance and the growth mindset—the belief that abilities can be developed through effort and practice. Encourage a culture of learning from mistakes and embracing challenges. Research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues highlights how adopting a growth mindset promotes intrinsic motivation and resilience.
  4. Offer Meaningful Feedback: Provide constructive feedback that focuses on effort, progress, and specific areas for improvement rather than solely on outcomes. Acknowledge students’ achievements and celebrate their successes. Feedback that highlights competence and autonomy supports intrinsic motivation, as demonstrated in studies by Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999).
  5. Create a Supportive Environment: Foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity within the school community. Establish positive relationships with students and create a safe space where they feel valued and respected. Research by Frederickson and Joiner (2002) underscores the importance of social connections in enhancing intrinsic motivation and well-being.

Key Questions to Determine Best Practices:

  1. What interests and passions do my students have, and how can I incorporate them into the curriculum?
  2. How can I provide opportunities for students to make choices and take ownership of their learning?
  3. In what ways can I promote a growth mindset and resilience among my students?
  4. How can I tailor feedback to inspire intrinsic motivation and foster a sense of competence?
  5. What strategies can I implement to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment?

Motivating students is a dynamic process that requires creativity, empathy, and a deep understanding of individual needs and preferences. Would any or all of these strategies have made an impact on the student I mentioned at the beginning of this post?

I think as counselors we have to operate from the assumption that everything we do makes a difference, whether it is a noticeable one or not. Who knows but that what you do today might in future years be the inspiration for someone who barely made it through high school to become a professor at Stanford Medical School who now focuses on changing other’s lives for the better?  By incorporating research-backed strategies and asking thoughtful questions, elementary school counselors can cultivate a culture of intrinsic motivation, resilience, and academic success among our students.


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