Posted in Challenges, Education, Students, Teaching

How do I Support the Unmotivated Student?

Each year, I have at least one student in my class who is capable of exceeding every objective covered but they lack the desire and motivation to succeed, and end up barely meeting the objectives.  I wrestle with how to help and support these students?  Is it a lack of motivation or something else?  Our curriculum is engaging, individualized, and hands-on, which makes it even harder for me to understand why they would not want to effectively work with a group to create a space rover using Little Bits.  Are they just not interested in school?  Could that be it?  Are there other, external factors preventing them from staying focused or on-task in class?  As their teacher, it’s important that I fully understand them as people and students.  Why are they acting like this in class?  What’s the cause or root of the behavior?  How can I then address that root issue?  Even after determining the cause of the problem, I sometimes wonder how to best address that issue for every student.  While most students who struggle with self-motivation at the start of the year usually make much progress over the course of the year in sixth grade, every once in awhile there is a student who doesn’t show signs of improvement.  It’s these boys that I worry about.  How can I best support and help those few students while they are in the sixth grade?

There is an international student in my class this year who is capable of being on the Honor Roll.  He is so intelligent and scores well on standardized tests.  He is generally a kind and compassionate young man.  He struggles with social interactions at times, but overall, manages to interact with his peers on an acceptable level.  The issue is that he is content with simply meeting the objectives and completing the smallest amount of work possible to demonstrate his ability to meet the objectives covered.  Despite pointing out how intelligent I believe he is and how much potential lives inside of him, he is not putting forth the effort to showcase his true academic abilities.  Compound this with his emotional challenges, and therein lies the whole problem.  He has problems dealing with anger.  When he gets frustrated or angry, he verbally lashes out at his peers and the teachers.  While he is working with our school’s counselor on anger management strategies, we have yet to see any positive changes or progress from him regarding this issue.  Currently, in the classroom, we address the emotional issues by having him take a mental break outside of the classroom.  We have him take a seat on the couch near the administrative offices so that he can be observed during this time.  Our number one priority is always the safety of our boys.  When he returns from these breaks, his attitude and demeanor is much more positive and calm.  However, he usually struggles to refocus and return to the task at hand.  So now what?

I have been trying to put together the big picture of this student since these issues began rearing their ugly head in late September.  What is causing him to not put forth effort?  I’ve seen him work with great determination and focus at times and so I know it’s possible.  Yes, he struggles with attention and focus, but don’t we all at some point regarding some aspect of our lives?  Brain-based research proves that we all have attention issues of some sort.  ADD is not an excuse or a crutch.  I’ve worked with focused, hard-working students who had been diagnosed as having ADD.  I can’t accept this as a reason for a student not to try to work to his full potential.  As he is an international student, he is accustomed to a different way of learning in school.  That I understand.  He is used to lecture-based classes where tests were given and rote memorization was the key to his success.  Now he is being asked to think creatively, solve problems in unique ways, and work with a group to accomplish a task.  This could be an issue as well.  Perhaps he’s never had to put forth great effort because he’s very good at memorizing information and pretending to listen.  Maybe he doesn’t know how to try harder.  I realized this early on in the year and met with him on several occasions to specifically spell out for him what he needs to do to exceed the objectives and work hard.  This didn’t foster any change within him.  So, clearly that wasn’t the main issue.  What about cultural differences?  His English proficiency is excellent, but perhaps being in a different country with different foods and habits is difficult for him.  Maybe that is causing the lack of effort and focus in class.  He has had much experience in the US during his life and that doesn’t seem to be an issue here.  He adjusted to life here very quickly.  So then what is causing this weak effort?  Perhaps it is connected to his emotional issues.  Maybe as the year progresses and he works with our counselor more, he will learn how to overcome the emotional problems plaguing him and be able to put forth greater effort.

Until then though, how do I best support him in the classroom?  I want him to grow and develop as a student and individual this year in the sixth grade.  So, what do I do to help him?  How can I help motivate him to want to try harder, to want to live up to his fullest potential?  I feel slightly helpless here.  I’ve tried every trick in my small bag and nothing seems to work consistently.  Some days are better than others.  It depends on his mood.  I’ve tried positive praise and reinforcement and that works sometimes, but not all the time.  I’ve even taken away the distraction of his laptop, and that doesn’t seem to make a difference.  He just doesn’t seem to want to do the work or put forth the effort.  He is happy just barely getting by.  I want to help him want to care, but is that possible?  Will he figure that out in time?  I’m certainly not going to give up on this student, but I clearly need to try other strategies.  Any ideas?

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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