How to Motivate A Child Who is Unmotivated

how to motivate a child who is unmotivated

I grew up in a supportive and encouraging environment where I felt my parents were always rooting for me. This environment helped me become motivated and stay focused on my goals even from a young age, and allowed me to express myself in a free and outgoing way. 

My younger brother however, who grew up in the same household, turned out very different than me. His personality is more introverted, less self-motivated, and he’s overall less focused on the long term outcome of his actions, or lack thereof. My parents realized when he was young that he would need very different support than someone like me. 

Now, as an educator myself, I see students like my brother all the time. Quiet, less interested in learning or trying new things, and not really interested in accepting support from others. I’ve seen these traits in students of all ages, and now understand the challenges of connecting with these young learners. It’s so important to find ways of making these connections, encouraging a positive attitude about learning and socializing, and making sure these students feel heard and cared for.

What I’ve learned from working with unmotivated students

One of the main programs I teach in my one-on-one sessions at La Jolla LearningWorks is our Executive Functioning (EF) program, which is truly beneficial to students of all ages, even adults! In the beginning of this program, we talk about the structure of the brain, how it’s organized, and how it functions, which gives the student a visual of what their brain is actually doing during any given activity. 

Executive functioning skills are what we need to perform daily tasks in our lives, and they are the last part of the brain to mature. Moreover, the rapid changes in technology add new layers of complexity to our lives that make it ever more challenging to manage the flow of information and tasks. So, no matter who you are, you will likely experience executive functioning areas that feel more challenging than you want them to be. 

We recently revamped our EF program in light of new developments over the past few years to make sure our students leave their sessions feeling equipped to get things done efficiently and effectively in and outside of school. 

While flipping through our newly updated program, I did a lot of reflecting on some of the students I’ve used it with, and what strategies I tried. I have had a lot of successful experiences where I’ve felt like something I said to the student really stuck and helped them move forward. 

I’ve also tried some things with students that I thought would work that just didn’t, and I’m willing to bet that’s the same feeling students get when they try something new and it doesn’t work: defeated, helpless, disappointed, and overall discouraged to continue.

But, what I realize every time this happens, is that no part of me is about to give up on a student. I’m going to try the next thing, and the next thing, and hope they don’t quit before we figure out strategies and tools that work for their individual learning style. 

Some do quit, and that feels like another defeat, but it’s also another opportunity to reflect on ways to prevent that from happening in the future with another student. 

In this post, I’ll answer the following questions: 

  • Which students are the most challenging to engage?
  • Why are they challenging?
  • How do you motivate a child who is unmotivated?

Key differences between motivated and unmotivated students

Some of my students come into their first session and quickly ease into a very natural connection with me. They know what they like, it’s easy for them to tell me what’s going on in their lives, and they can talk to me naturally without feeling like I’m there to make them do work that they don’t want to do. 

It’s “easy” in a sense for me to read them, know how to communicate with each other, and help them through challenging work that they’re less motivated to do alone. I’m definitely grateful for these students every day as they make me aware of some of the things I am doing right as an educator!

The other type of students I have worked with are the ones who are a little more reserved from the beginning, maybe more introverted, and potentially less motivated to learn and try new strategies, like my brother. 

Many of these students struggle to answer questions about themselves, whether it’s about their interests, their goals, their frustrations or other emotions. It can also be challenging for them to recognize and share what they think are their strengths and weaknesses. 

These more challenging students are oftentimes the ones most in need of support with executive functioning, since emotional control and self-awareness (what we call “metacognition”) are two of the prime areas involved in executive functioning. Without support, these students become adults with difficulty overcoming challenges, connecting authentically with others, and finding satisfaction in the various aspects of their adult lives. 

Why are some students unmotivated? 

With so much at stake, I wanted to figure out first, what are some reasons why students are unmotivated? Here’s what I came up with for this first question:

  • The learner is afraid to fail. We’re all afraid to fail in some way, right? That’s where anxiety typically stems from. It’s why we back away from things we know are good for us but may require a risk of failing, even if it’s small. Fear is a good thing, it keeps us safe, but in this case, it could be hindering one’s ability to succeed.
  • The learner hasn’t been asked the right questions yet. Maybe they’re not sharing because no one’s asked them “do you believe in aliens?” or “what would you do if you could fly?” or something else very specific that would get that student talking.
  • The learner hasn’t found what they’re passion is yet, or what they’re motivated by. Students who answer “nothing” or “I don’t know” to the question “what are you interested in” may truly not know yet. Maybe they haven’t been exposed to enough of the world to have figured out what really gets them excited. These students might benefit from Career Interest Coaching to help them explore different paths for college or jobs, based on things they know a lot about.
  • The learner may also have an underlying learning difference that hasn’t been discovered yet. Sometimes what we think is a “quiet” or “shy” student, is actually a student who is struggling to learn and potentially has a learning difference or mental health challenge that hasn’t been addressed yet. This is oftentimes the case with executive functioning disorders.

Everyone’s brain works differently, and sometimes it can be really difficult for educators to understand the actions and thoughts of a student who thinks differently than we do and is reluctant to open up. This is where I wanted to dive into some of the less obvious ways we can relate to someone who is in this apprehensive headspace.

How to connect with unmotivated students

Here are some tips for connecting with unmotivated students:

  • Share a personal story of failure, success, or just something fun. Think of a story or stories, that you feel comfortable sharing with your student about a time something seemed like a failure, and how you turned it into a success story, even if the lesson wasn’t immediately grasped from the experience. I’ve found that I can also get sick of hearing my own voice talk and talk about a school subject or an executive functioning topic, and it helps to take a break and share stories. It’s even better if there’s some comedic aspect to get them smiling, but sometimes simple stories can remind a student that we’re all human and it’s okay to make mistakes and fail. Failing is necessary on the path to success. It also might remind them of a story they have that they will hopefully share with you, and if not, you can ask “do you have any similar stories or any fun ones you’d like to share?”
  • Keep asking questions. If the student is one that answers “I don’t know” to questions about interests or strengths and weaknesses, keep asking questions until you find the right one. As I said, some students just haven’t been asked the right ones yet, and don’t necessarily know how to come up with a list of interests on the spot because that can feel like a lot of pressure. But, if you’re asking more specific questions like “what games do you like?” or “what movies have you seen recently and did you like them?” you will eventually hit the right question that changes their answer from “I don’t know” to something you can build from to find the things that motivate them.
  • Ask them to write. Writing is a critical skill that most jobs require, so improving writing skills has undeniable value. I like to use the well-known phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” to explain to students that if you can write about anything, however small or meaningless you think it is, your chances for success will improve significantly. I use this tactic to provide the student with a tool they can use to dig deeper into simple things. If the student is indecisive, I’ll give them a famous picture, a short video or article about a current news topic, or an open-ended question to answer like the suggestions below to see where their mind takes them. This project could take some time, but it’s a great way to ask some guiding questions and open up a conversation so you can see the student’s imagination activate. The idea is to get them writing so they’ll start talking, and hopefully find at least one question that clicks for them.

Here are some writing prompt suggestions:

  • What did you learn about ___ from this video/article? (After taking some notes)
  • If you could have Disneyland to yourself for an entire day, what would you do?
  • If you could travel anywhere in the world for free, where would you go first?
  • What’s something you’re looking forward to in your future? (Encourage thoughts about the near and far future, big and small ideas)
  • If you had to live in space, what would you do with your time?
  • Set a fun goal. Discuss the importance of goal setting and how it requires taking small steps to reach the end, and then choose something fun before starting the more daunting goals involving academics. This could include playing outside for 30 minutes every day, saving up a certain amount of money to buy a new toy or game, or planning time to hang out with friends and do something you enjoy. You can also set a goal for yourself and share it with them so that next time you come in, you get to ask each other how it went. The purpose is to get the student comfortable with the idea of accomplishing something they planned ahead of time so they can do the same thing with more significant academic and personal goals.
  • Discuss psychological and/or academic assessment with the student’s parents. If you feel like the student is still struggling to open up or answer questions completely, it’s possible that an Academic Skills Assessment and a mental health evaluation could be beneficial. A diagnosis may not even be necessary, but getting to the root of the student’s abilities and emotions will provide insight into the areas that still need improvement. We offer some of these assessments at LJLW as well as resources and referrals for those that we don’t offer! 

There are so many things we don’t necessarily understand about the human brain, but once we understand why a student is apprehensive or struggling in a certain area, we can develop an effective plan to support their improvement.

About the Author 

Olivia received her Master of Science in Applied Mathematics from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. After graduating, she moved to Thailand where she earned her TEFL certification and taught English, math and science to second language third graders, as well as tutoring them in specific areas of need outside the classroom. She is now a crucial part of La Jolla LearningWork’s team; she has worked with students with ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, Sensory Processing Disorders and Behavioral Disorders.

Olivia believes that children learn in a variety of ways and with the right attention they can find out what works for them early and implement these methods in every aspect of their educational and personal growth. She likes to engage students by creating positive connections to the real world and the things they enjoy the most.

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