Updated: Jan 7
How to Grow Motivation in a Classroom Setting
Can motivation be taught? How to motivate students in the classroom comes up a lot in our thought processes as teachers. What was one of the hardest things as a teacher in the beginning? For me, it was understanding the motivation of my students. I had a wide range of students who were apathetic, highly motivated, only motivated through candy, some motivated through freedom of time, some wanting to be motivated but was never taught how to focus it.
I didn’t realize the need for researching this particular topic until I was stuck at home in March of 2020 with a toddler that wouldn’t nap, wasn’t entertained unless I was with her all while I was trying to teach virtual classes and working from 7am to 5pm almost every day. Cue diving into all the parenting instagram accounts, podcasts and articles as I tried to navigate parenthood.
In diving into all the things parenthood, I came to find that a lot of these strategies could work in the classroom as well. Then, I did a deep dive into motivation in students. Extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation. Advocacy. How do you motivate someone who doesn’t seem motivated? I was able to adapt these parenting strategies and apply them to the classroom and saw huge improvements in participation, self reflection, advocacy, and just overall acceptance of failures and learning experiences.
Good Job vs. Self Reflection
My number one strategy in improving intrinsic motivation in a classroom is through self reflection instead of seeking outward validation. I’m not saying that “Good Job” should be counted as a bad phrase…but there are definitely better ones that create more lasting determination in the classroom.
We always want to bring the successes inward, meaning, we want the students to reflect on how they feel vs. how everyone else feels about their accomplishments.
“Awesome! How does that make you feel?”
“I’m impressed with how you ::insert accomplishment here::’.
These simple changes can create a sense of ownership in students and give them that push in intrinsic motivation in a classroom.
But remember, this is a long game. It’s a marathon. These changes won’t be immediate in a student, but over time, you will see an improvement.
Now, let us talk about Frustration Resilience. How to motivate students in the classroom when frustration is so high in a students’ mindset? Students these days are having a hard time working through frustration, either not feeling satisfied with failure or shutting down after failing. Instant gratification can be a joy stealer at times and sets up students to lack motivation in a classroom. So, what can we do to help improve frustration tolerance?
Allowing students to fail or problem solve does not make you a bad educator, in fact, you are giving students the ability to find ways to improve their learning.
Don’t be quick to fix their learning strategies!
When a student comes up to me and says, “I forgot how to play C on the flute”, I take a breath, stop my immediate reaction to just tell him, and say “Hmmm, I wonder how you are going to figure that out? What could you do to solve this problem?” Lo and behold, the student goes to his band book and looks up the fingerings and then checks with a student nearby to see if he was doing it correctly. THAT is the magic of frustration tolerance.
Teaching kids to be self-sufficient can help you be a better teacher and help them be better learners.
Handwritten Notes & Why
What about the students that are hard to reach? How to motivate a student in the classroom that obviously doesn’t want to be there or be in your room? The student that seems to do no right in your classroom? You feel like you nag them from when they walk into your classroom to when they step out of your doorway.
Students that require more love and compassion are the ones that are sometimes the hardest to connect with.
One of the best things I’ve done in my career is handwritten notes. These handwritten notes are gold!
STORY TIME - WHY IT WORKS
I once had a student that was causing all kinds of inappropriate distractions in my class and nothing was working. One morning, I promised myself that THAT DAY I was going to find one positive thing that student did and create such a big deal about it. Guys, he was running around my room and not doing his work but while this was happening, he picked up a girls pencil and handed it to her - PURE GOLD. After that class, I got a card and immediately started writing, “Today, Jim showed so much compassion towards another student and picked up a pencil for her that she had dropped. It was the sweetest thing I saw today and I’m so grateful to have him in my class. - Mrs. Williams.” The next day I ask this student to take the card home and give it to his guardian. He looked at me in shock and said, “What did I do wrong again?” To which my response was, “Nothing, just make sure your aunt gets this from me.”
The following day this kid came in with a pep in his step. The next thing I knew, he was telling the class “Y’all need to be quiet while Mrs. Williams is teaching! She’s my favorite teacher and she is trying to help y’all!” As I almost fell out of my chair in shock, my heart was soaring. I reached him. I finally found a connection with him. What I learned was that I not only gave him praise from me, but I gave an opportunity for his aunt to praise him too; as the note was to HER and not to him. He had TWO adult interactions that were positive, whereas, he probably had only one positive interaction the entire month. Giving him TWO adult interactions that were meaningful did more for him than if I was to just praise him in the moment and then go right back to nagging. That day, my relationship with this student grew much stronger - to the point he would see me in the hall and say hi every single time, give me quick “love ya Mrs. Williams” and he had my back while I had his. This is why we do what we do.
Remember, we can’t create motivation in a classroom if we don’t have a healthy student rapport. Can motivation be taught? No, but it can be inspired.
Having a day of exhaustion can make any teacher feel less than. Maybe you are getting over an illness or your personal life has fallen apart, and yet, you show up anyway because you love these kids and this is the job you must do. It doesn’t make the day any less hard though. When we have days like this, make it normal to talk about it.
You don’t have to go into details, but let students know that you are having a rough day but are choosing to be present for them. You would be amazed at how your kids will understand.
I like to talk about Percentage Ability. This is the concept that not everyone works at 100%. So, when I’m having a rough day, I might warn the students that I’m functioning at 70% but I’m still going to show up for them. In turn, this has helped my students feel comfortable enough to come up to me and let me know what percentage they are functioning as.
This type of open communication reminds kids that they are not alone in feeling depleted, distracted or falling short. Everyone has bad days and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
You showing up regardless of a bad day 1) reminds them that you care 2) demonstrates what it’s like to persevere through a bad day 3) creates a safe space of feeling normal.
Students appreciate relatability, so give them something to relate to because everyone has bad days.
Negative Self Talk
We all have that voice in our heads that keep us from doing things or making us feel inadequate. This is our Negative Self Talk. The best thing you can do for students is to talk about this openly. Discuss that you have a voice that will tell you “You can’t do this” or “You aren’t good enough” even as an adult. Our biggest fight for motivation in a classroom is a student’s self-talk.
For younger kids all the way up to Middle School, you can give your negative self talk a name and an image. Mine’s name is Glen and he is an overbite chihuahua. I tell this to the kids and, of course, they laugh. All of a sudden this negative voice doesn’t have power…but it’s a ridiculous image. When we give our negative self-talk a hilarious name and persona, it’s no longer harmful.
I have my students come up with a silly name and image that represents this negative voice. We laugh and come up with crazy stuff, but in the end, the kids have created a safer version of their self talk.
After you do this, it is important for you to model this. Talk about your “Glen” and how it’s keeping you from doing something you need to do or it’s telling you “You can’t get this done on time”, etc. I always say, “Glen is in my head again. BACK OFF GLEN!” When you model it, the students will model it too.
Remember, you are human and so are your students. Showing our students that we are just like them gives them the ability to feel comfortable and connected, which in turn can create momentum for motivation in a classroom.
For more helpful tips and tricks, make sure to check out my FREE Transforming Motivation in the Classroom Course! It is packed with tons of helpful information on how to reach students and improve motivation in a classroom. Click on the image below.
If you would like a poster to put by your desk when you are in your classroom as a good remind of these points, you can download it below!
If you are looking for more resources for your music classroom or band classroom, please feel free to visit my other blog posts below!