Keeping Students Motivated

Keeping Students Motivated

By: Lisa Maddox, MS, RMHCI; Dr. Cat Baker, PhD, BCBA-D; & Molly Hankla, MA, BCBA

Do you struggle with keeping your students motivated? There are many factors that can affect how motivated and attentive children are in the classroom. So how do we define motivation, exactly, and how can teachers use it to their advantage? How can you get students to be more motivated and interested in the subjects being taught?

Motivation is the measure of how likely you are to learn new behaviors and engage in behaviors you have already learned. For example, you might try to cook a new recipe, or you might choose to exercise to be more active. But what is it that drives these motivations once we’re adults, and how can we set up our students to learn to be motivated? Let’s start with the basics and go over the two categories of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic,

Intrinsic motivation is often thought of as completing a task for personal satisfaction. It might make you feel good, is personally challenging, or leads to a sense of accomplishment. Using one of the examples above, you might try to cook a new recipe because you simply enjoy the challenge of cooking! In the classroom, intrinsic motivation can look like independence. If a student is independently-motivated to complete tasks without a lot of prompting or assistance, they might feel a personal sense of accomplishment or enjoyment in school. These students might not need as much extrinsic factors to stay motivated. But remember, all students (and adults) need extrinsic motivation when learning new skills, so let’s dive deeper.

Extrinsic motivation is often thought of as completing a task to earn a reward or avoid punishment. In the other example from above, you might start exercising because your doctor said your health would improve if you increase your physical activity. Now ultimately, the reward and motivation is the improved mobility and health, but that takes a long time to achieve! In the interim, the extrinsic motivation may be friends and family cheering you on to “bridge the gap” as you develop your new habits. In the classroom, extrinsic motivation can help close the gap between independently-motivated students and students who need prompting, and more frequent rewards to be motivated. So, should teachers use extrinsic motivation? YES!

Extrinsic motivation works well when you are learning a new skill, if a skill is difficult, or you need to overcome other difficulties (learning differences, anxiety, etc.). Many students are still building their intrinsic motivation and learning what motivates them. Extrinsic motivation can help them while they are learning — the goal being that the extrinsic motivation would fade into intrinsic motivation through careful and precise removal of the “reward” as the student progresses.

However, motivation can be tricky because it is learned, and it changes over time. When we step into a new environment, we start to monitor and observe what behaviors are going to get us the reward we are looking for. For a student, the hardest quiz or test of the year is the “new environment.” The first assessments show them how you, as the educator, take the information provided and put it into an assessment. This is where they learn what amount of effort is required to get their desired outcome.

Motivation can be affected by more than just a reward. It can be influenced by:

  • How often you get the reward: Every time the behavior is done vs once a week
  • What the reward is: Candy vs Stickers vs Bonus points
  • How big it is: Fun size candy vs King size candy
  • How much effort needed: 10 minutes to finish task vs 1 hour to finish task

If you have a student who is struggling to stay motivated, take a look at these factors and see if there is something that you can shift around.

With motivation, an important point to remember is that people are motivated by different things. When one of the authors of this blog, Lisa, was in school, the biggest motivator for her from the list above would have been extra points, but for some students that would be their least favorite option. It depends on where they are in their motivational growth and their personal preferences. It is important to take a ‘case by case’ approach when it comes to motivation.

Motivation changes overtime as well, both for individuals and as a general society. What are some ways that you can infuse motivation into your classroom, whether you have lost it or you just want to keep it fresh? Let’s look at some tips for bringing some intrinsic motivation into your classroom:

  • Model enthusiasm and interest in the topics covered.
  • Connect student interest to topics in class. Create projects that students can tailor to their interests.
  • Allow students to make choices in their work.
  • Praise students frequently and fairly. Give specific feedback with constructive criticism.
  • Give them ownership of their environment. Let them set classroom rules and procedures.  Give them jobs or roles in the classroom.
  • Get out of their way! Kids have a way of thinking outside of the box that can be incredible, let their minds grow and watch what they come up with.

Remember, you are doing a great job! Just by reading this entire post, it shows you care about your students and want to have an engaging and motivating classroom. It is not necessary for you to readjust everything that you are currently doing for every lesson this year, but if you slowly add some of these tips throughout your lessons, your students will be more intrinsically motivated while learning. Have a great school year!

Ready for more? We recommend reading “8 Teaching Strategies for Children who Learn Differently.” If you enjoyed this blog, we also recommend trying our online courses in Behavioral and Emotional Management in the classroom! You can work at your own pace while deepening your knowledge of your students’ brains and behavior. Years in the making, our Teacher Professional Development courses take you through how the brain operates (and how to work with it), how the brain actually learns, and how to figure out what your students are thinking. You can learn more and sign up here.

At FCI, we love sharing our favorite books with clients, parents, and teachers, which is why we are so grateful to work with Bookshop to share books with you! If you’re looking for books to add to your classroom library, take a look at our list below. If you make any purchase at Bookshop within 48 hours of using our link below, we receive 10% of your purchase, which we use to buy more books to use in session with our kiddos. It’s a win-win!


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