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Three Reasons Why Your Child Isn’t Motivated at School

March, 2017
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Children may appear unmotivated at school for a wide range of reasons…to gain attention, to avoid tasks, to vent frustration and anger, to seek sensory input, to win control and power, and more.

albine-ot-dyslexia-session1“It is most important to understand why children engage in a certain behavior,” says Junjing Fan, Occupational Therapist with the Essential Learning Group (ELG). “Knowing why a behavior occurs – both positive and negative – is essential to understanding how to effectively motivate students.”

Here are three surprising reasons why your child isn’t motivated at school. 

Reason 1: Children’s behaviors are misunderstood.

Children may outwardly show the same behavior – speaking out in class, tantrums, avoiding a certain task – but the reason underlying it may vary greatly from child to child. These challenging behaviors disempower our children to participate with peers, to develop friendships, to learn in a least restricted environment, and to develop self-regulation of emotions, feelings and temperament. 

“It’s important to take the time to assess why a child is behaving in a certain way,” explains Junjing. “We need to define the behavior, its frequency and its perceived purpose in all the environments it occurs.” This increases knowledge of how to properly manage negative behaviors and motivate positive behaviors.

Reason 2: Children may not know what to do.

Children are more motivated when they believe they can succeed. One way to foster success is through introducing cognitive strategies to assist his or her comprehension. For example, providing opportunities for mental rehearsal in a quiet space, breaking down a difficult task to several continuous steps, visually showing a sequence of activity to increase predictability, and assisting with transition. 

Reason 3: Children may ‘shut down’ due to anxiety and worry about negative consequences.

Wisely use behavioral motivators. ‘If and then’ threats (negatively phrased) can increase anxiety to such a level that a teacher or parent can actually elicit the opposite outcome. The child becomes completely unable to concentrate on what he should do, focusing instead one what he will lose.
For example, consider this negatively phrased statement: “If you don’t finish this task, you won’t be able to participate in playtime.” Try something like this instead: “When you finish this task, you can enjoy 10 minutes of free time.”

Know me. Motivate me.

Children will be more motivated in a learning environment that understands and supports them as individuals. Positive behavior support serves the purpose by directing positive attention to small gains, not just the perfect performance. In other words, concentrating on achievement, and not what still needs to be done.  The challenge is to stop thinking about what the child should do and think about what WE could do.

tameahchandler-behavior-session-8But: how to motivate students at home and at school?

Structure the environment. When setting up a play interaction, create a safe, familiar and motivating setting within which your child will feel a sense of comfort. An organized and defined play space will encourage your child to initiate and plan their play. Play materials should be accessible, visible, clearly labeled and arranged around activities and themes

Working from a strengths-based perspective. By using what your child does well to encourage new skills, and by understanding their interests and preoccupations, however unusual they may seem. Using these interests as a basis for expanding your child’s motivation to play. For example, if your child has a fascination with trains, try taking the train into the sandpit or reading a book together about trains.

Break down tasks into steps. Teach an activity by breaking it down into small steps. Initially, only encourage your child to complete one part of the activity. This will reduce the demands on your child, which in turn may increase their motivation and confidence. At the beginning, limit the amount of verbal instruction you provide. Clear instructions using single words and short phrases depending on your child’s ability may take an activity easier.

Provide Encouragement. Praise for any child is motivating and rewarding. Positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that positive behavior will reoccur. Tangible rewards may also appeal to your child. Be very specific about what you are pleased with when you use praise..


By Junjing Fan,

Occupational Therapist, with Ronni Rowland, Writer

The Essential Learning Group


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