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Motivating Students Who Don't Care: Successful Techniques for Educators

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This book is a comprehensive and practical guide for reconnecting with discouraged students and reawakening their excitement and enthusiasm for learning. With proven strategies from the classroom, Dr. Mendler identifies five effective processes you can use to reawaken motivation in students who aren’t prepared, don’t care, and won’t work. These processes include emphasizing effort, creating hope, respecting power, building relationships, and expressing enthusiasm.

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Chapter 1: Introduction to Strategies

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1 Introduction to Strategies

Managing student behavior … is a delicate balance between maintaining social order and meeting the unique needs of each student.

—Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler
(Discipline With Dignity, 1988, 1999)

In the original Discipline With Dignity (Curwin & Mendler, 1988, 1999), a “three dimensional discipline” model was presented with three components: prevention, action, and resolution. We suggested numerous ways to prevent problems from occurring, to act when problems occur, and to resolve issues with more challenging students. In daily classroom life, two types of strategies make for effective discipline—prevention and intervention. Prevention involves understanding why students behave inappropriately and then doing things to prevent problems. After problems occur, prevention is also concerned with what can be done to keep the same thing from happening again. Intervention involves stopping misbehavior quickly so that little precious time is lost to instruction. The strategies offered here are with the rubric of prevention and intervention.

 

Chapter 1: Why Are Students Unmotivated?

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AN EXPECTATION OF ENTITLEMENT is easy to acquire in a culture that too often values what we have rather than who we are. During an age in which abundance of things seems to take precedence over giving the gift of our time, guilt often leads parents to give materially to their children without attaching expectations. When children are spoiled into believing that what they want is what they should have, school provides a rude awakening when it links success to personal effort. Changing the culture is difficult at best, so wise educators need to understand and use social dynamics to create, inspire, and cultivate motivation within their students.

From a psychological perspective, many students who have bad behavior or who give up are covering their concerns about being perceived as stupid. They are protecting themselves from the embarrassment of looking dumb in the eyes of their classmates, parents, and selves. Some students find power and control in their refusals to work. They are often competent and capable, but their need to be in control is so strong that they employ a self-defeating strategy to exert their independence. Depression among children as young as preschoolers is often overlooked as a cause of poor school motivation. When depression is adequately diagnosed, treatment through counseling and drug therapy can often be effective. Whether for competence or autonomy, lack of motivation is a protective mechanism that must be respectfully challenged in order to help students make better choices.

 

Chapter 2: Tips for Welcoming Students

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2 Tips for Welcoming Students

I passed Mr. Waxman in the hall. I had him last year for English, and even though I said hi to him, he walked right past me as if he never met me before.

—Lucas, age 16

Mrs. Hodges is really cool. Even though I only have her for one class period a day, I feel like I can talk to her about anything!

—Myeka, age 14

SET UP YOUR CLASSROOM IN A WELCOMING WAY

A new school year typically begins for teachers at least a few days before students arrive. The main purpose of this time is for organization of the classroom, although there is often some time set aside for professional development. A motivational speaker is often brought in to help inspire the “troops” on one educational theme or another. I have often been the motivational speaker for such groups, and I have usually been asked to address how to interact most effectively with students with difficult behavior. I am a veteran presenter and have learned to deal with just about every possible glitch in a calm and friendly manner, despite often remaining silently aghast at the surroundings in which I meet with my audience. Even though there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of environmental conditions to the success of a staff development day, it is not uncommon to encounter extremely difficult surroundings. For example, one may experience large numbers of teachers meeting in a poorly ventilated area (the cafeteria), seated tightly together on hard seats with a sound system that either echoes excessively or is barely audible. There may be the last-minute addition of an overhead projector that can barely be seen because it is of poor quality or cannot possibly be viewed by everyone in such a large room. Common interruptions include cell phones ringing or the constant drone of the intercom paging one person or another. Despite the presence of a professional speaker and motivated learners, I sometimes leave these experiences wondering if any meaningful learning could have occurred in this environment plagued with problems.

 

Chapter 2: Using This Book Most Effectively

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ALL OF THE STRATEGIES THAT ARE OFFERED in this book have proven themselves to be very effective tools in motivating students. Although the goal of this book is to offer educators specific, practical, and proven strategies, it is not a cookbook with the recipe for producing perfectly motivated students. Instead, it offers a set of beliefs followed by five specific processes that form the framework for the many classroom-friendly strategies designed to inspire motivation in students who are giving up. It is most important to be guided by the framework rather than to feel compelled to use all of the strategies.

Although the book can be viewed as a comprehensive and practical guide, my hope is that you will employ the strategies that will work best for you while using the framework to invent new strategies as needed. Some strategies conclude with a suggestion section. This section offers specific ways that the suggestion can be implemented. Those strategies that do not contain a suggestion section are viewed as sufficiently obvious to be implemented without further information.

 

Chapter 3: What Educators Can Do: Five Key Processes That Motivate

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BEING SUCCESSFUL AT MOTIVATING DIFFICULT YOUTH requires that our behavior be motivated by the following basic beliefs:

1. All students are capable of learning when they have the academic and personal tools to be successful.

2. Students are inherently motivated to learn but learn to be unmotivated when they repeatedly fail.

3. Learning requires risk taking, so classrooms need to be safe places physically and psychologically.

4. All students have basic needs to belong, to be competent, and to influence what happens to them. Motivation to learn most often occurs when these basic needs are met.

5. High self-esteem should not be a goal, but rather a result that comes with the mastery of challenging tasks.

6. High motivation for learning in school most often occurs when adults treat students with respect and dignity.

These tenets are driven by the following five key processes that educators can use for guidance as they apply or create strategies that inspire and reinforce:

 

Chapter 3: Tips for Developing Effective Rules and Consequences

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3 Tips for Developing Effective Rules and Consequences

I love my school. Not all the teachers are interesting, but they care. And the kids are nice, too. Even though there are cliques, people respect each other. Nobody is allowed to bully. My school feels safe.

—Lisa, age 13

TIPS FOR SCHOOL-WIDE DISCIPLINE

Every school has divergent opinions about discipline. At the extremes are the “bleeding hearts” who act as if all disruptive students are victims and therefore need more love and caring. Then there is the “hang them high” crowd who believe that a tough, punitive approach is the answer. Naturally, most educators are somewhere in between. Students need to realize there are individual differences between teachers—not all share the same ideas and will not, therefore, have the same rules and consequences. We have long advocated for student involvement in developing rules and consequences. Each teacher is advised to establish rules based upon the content/approach to be taught and his or her style. For example, a teacher of industrial technology may need rules about safety that would be unnecessary in an English class. While individual differences are encouraged, it is also necessary to make sure that all educators are in agreement. It is therefore advisable for each school to develop a set of principles, or values, that pertain to everyone who serves in that educational environment—teachers, administrators, and staff. These values will serve as the framework upon which all staff members convey their disciplinary rules so that we all send a consistent message. There are three primary principles that many schools have adopted to bind educators together:

 

Chapter 4: Emphasizing Effort

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PUTTING THE FOCUS ON EFFORT IS CRUCIAL to increasing achievement, promoting learning, and minimizing behavior problems among students who are hiding their academic inadequacies. Most students who present themselves unfavorably, whether through their lack of motivation or their inappropriate behavior, are trying to conceal their concerns about academic or performance inadequacy. In a nutshell, they simply do not see themselves as capable and usually attribute success to ability rather than effort. As Carol Dweck’s research has shown, these students believe that intelligence is a fixed entity and is the factor responsible for success or failure (cited in Azar, 1996). By contrast, successful learners generally believe that their effort is the key factor in determining success. The end result is that many students who fail simply do not try because they believe that even if they worked harder, their achievement still would not improve in any substantial way. Although it is difficult to get such students to put forth greater effort, there are many classroom techniques that can work when the emphasis is placed on the relationship between achievement and effort.

 

Chapter 4: Tips for Promoting Greater Responsibility and Problem-Solving Abilities

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4 Tips for Promoting Greater Responsibility and Problem-Solving Abilities

The teachers at my school care about what we think. Students have lots of responsibilities, not just for themselves but for each other, also. The principal meets every few weeks with a group of students and asks for their opinions on things.

—Fred, age 12

FOCUS ON BUILDING THE FOUNDATIONS OF RESPONSIBILITY: AWARENESS, CHOICE, AND PLANNING

Students who handle responsibility poorly are nearly always lacking in one or more of the three main building blocks in teaching responsibility: awareness, choice, and planning. Some students simply do not reflect upon what they are doing before they act: impulsiveness characterizes their behaviors. Most mean no harm, but are so driven by their impulse that they do not stop and reflect before acting. These students lack awareness. Other students do not or cannot see the connection between the choices they make and the consequences of their actions. These students have problems with making good choices. Finally, some students present themselves in a disorganized, even chaotic way. Students who lack good planning skills are often very easily distracted and driven more by the events of the moment than they are by a comprehensive assessment of what is going on around them. As most educators know, many students who evidence little responsibility have gaps in more than one of these basic building blocks.

 

Chapter 5: Tips for Motivating Students

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5 Tips for Motivating Students

If you listen long enough, people will explain how they can be motivated.

—Alan Loy McGinnis,
Achievement Authority and Author

MOTIVATE YOUR STUDENTS WITH PREFERRED LEARNING ACTIVITIES

Students often tell us how they best learn in a variety of ways. Howard Gardner and his followers have written several books in which they document the existence of multiple intelligences and suggest ways to modify the curriculum. Although many reasons have been offered to explain why people learn differently, and numerous classroom activities have been developed to address these learning differences, instruction in most American classrooms (most notably at the secondary level) is not much different today than it was 50 years ago. Observations of students suggest that their engagement with subject matter is much better when certain learning conditions or activities are present.

Students should be encouraged to build or draw things. Many students learn better from hands-on activities. For these students, try to use three-dimensional objects to illustrate the concepts you are teaching. For example, some students need to look at and touch a globe in order to relate to and place a location being studied. The mathematical concept of area becomes much clearer to some students when they can measure the actual locale of a familiar place.

 

Chapter 5: Creating Hope

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STUDENTS WHO BELIEVE THEY CANNOT MASTER the curriculum or that mastery will not improve their lives in a meaningful way are the least motivated of all and the most likely to develop behavior problems. Finding the right level of challenge is one of the most important tasks we face in reaching students. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has demonstrated that when the level of challenge is too low, motivation is lost. Climbing a mound of dirt cannot motivate the same way that climbing a mountain can. Tasks that are too easy are not beneficial. And if a student fails at an easy task, the results are significantly more harmful because the student concludes, “I’m stupid.” When tasks are too difficult, students give up.

Our challenge, then, is to create mountains that students believe they can climb. View each classroom and subject as a mountain chain with peaks of different heights, and try to ensure a match between the peak and the aptitude of the climber. When challenge matches ability, the conditions are right for students to participate with enthusiasm.

 

Chapter 6: Tips for Handling Tough Moments

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6 Tips for Handling Tough Moments

When students challenge our authority, it takes professionalism to know not only what to do but how to do it in a dignified way.

—Barbara Mendler, Educator

LEARN NOT TO TAKE OFFENSIVE BEHAVIOR PERSONALLY

Mrs. Kendall asked Shirelle to stop talking to her buddy, and Shirelle angrily responded, “F--- off!” Mrs. Kendall replied, “Shirelle, you are obviously having a horrible day. I wish I could help you but I can’t right now, so can you collect yourself, or do you need to leave for a few minutes?” Shirelle continued, “Damned right I am having a lousy day. I haven’t seen my old man in months, and my mom has cancer. You’d be having a bad day too if you were in my shoes!” Mrs. Kendall said, “You’re absolutely right, Shirelle, and my heart aches for you. But I must remind you that I didn’t cause these things to happen, and I don’t deserve that kind of language. We’ll talk later.” Shirelle soon apologized for her outburst.

 

Chapter 6: Respecting Power

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THE BELIEFS THAT WE HAVE ABOUT OUR OWN COMPETENCE, autonomy, and power influence our motivation. People want desperately to be respected and empowered and will often resort to destructive methods when more reasonable pathways are blocked or perceived as unavailable. A common denominator among those committing school shootings has been the shared perception of being put down and disrespected by fellow students. Some students find power and control in their refusals to work. They are competent and capable, but their need to be in control is so strong that they arrive at what is an extremely self-defeating strategy to exert their independence. Whether for competence, autonomy, or influence, poor work and refusals to participate are protective mechanisms that must be respected and challenged in order to help students make better choices. We must help students learn to influence others and define their independence in ways that are more appropriate and less self-defeating than retreating into either aggression or passive inactivity.

 

Chapter 7: Tips for Handling Difficult Situations

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7 Tips for Handling Difficult Situations

When students become out of control, it is important to take charge of the situation by remaining calm and implementing a crisis plan. Each classroom should have a crisis plan to address behaviors such as tantrums and fights. It is best to outline in advance what everyone is supposed to do when such an event takes place. Key factors determining the specifics of a crisis plan are the teacher’s skills, where the event takes place, and the availability of other human resources for help when necessary. Ideally, all educators should receive training in crisis management that includes verbal and physical skills because such ability may be necessary to defuse the crisis. In reality, not everyone has experienced such training and even those who have vary in their effectiveness. It is therefore important for educators to know what to do in a crisis. Keep in mind that the sole goal during a crisis is to restore order when chaos is occurring.

 

Chapter 7: Building Relationships

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MUCH OF WHAT RICK CURWIN AND I HAVE ADVOCATED for years in our books and articles has essentially been the need to prevent discipline problems by improving our relationships with students and finding ways of preserving these relationships when we need to intervene in student behavior. Motivation is no different. There are simply times when learning is not fun, students cannot understand how it will benefit their lives, and lessons will not be geared to an individual’s preferred learning style or intelligence. Learning to remember the times tables can be a painful yet necessary exercise for many students, and one unlikely to be relieved through entertainment.

When my son was an advanced placement physics student greatly challenged by the material, he was actually reassured to hear his teacher advise him and others that they could not yet possibly expect to understand what they were doing because they were still “learning the language” of physics. The teacher assured them that it would begin to make sense later on, and they believed him because he had always been honest and genuine with them. There are times when we inspire motivation because of the work we have previously done to establish trust with our students. It is as if we make deposits into a reservoir of goodwill from which we can make withdrawals when needed. There are times when we must rely on our good relationships to elicit and even inspire optimal effort from our students.

 

Chapter 8: Tips for Helping Students Handle Tough Moments and Difficult Situations

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8 Tips for Helping Students Handle Tough Moments and Difficult Situations

Strong people make as many ugly mistakes as weak people. The difference is that strong people admit them, laugh at them, and learn from them. That is how they become strong.

—Richard Needham, Author and Educator

This section offers strategies we can teach our students—some are designed to help them stand up to others when their buttons are pushed, while other strategies emphasize learning ways of maintaining self-control.

SIX STEPS IN TEACHING ALTERNATIVES TO HURTING OTHERS

Students who repeatedly say or do hurtful things are often hurting inside. They learn to hurt others first, before others hurt them, as a form of self-protection. Although many such students need ongoing interventions to help them get a handle on things (ideally, in concert with their families), educators can benefit these students and all others affected through an ongoing six-step process. We need to ask ourselves how we want our students to express anger with us. When they do not like something that you say or do, how do you want them to let you know? Should they tell you? How? What words should they use, and when should they tell you? Is it okay with you if they tell you right away (even if you are in the middle of a lesson), or are there certain times set aside for you to listen? Do you want them to write how they feel? What if they are too young to write or if they hate writing? Are there other alternatives? Can they draw a picture of how upset they are? Should they tell a friend first and get some advice before coming to you?

 

Chapter 8: Expressing Enthusiasm

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PHILOSOPHER AND EDUCATOR LEO STEIN was quoted as saying, “the perfect method of learning is analogous to infection. It enters and spreads.” Research tells us that our expectations of success for others often influence the degree to which they actually achieve. Simply said, when we expect success, we are more likely to get it. In a similar vein, we can exert strong influence on the behavior of others through the degree of optimism and enthusiasm that we convey. People like being around others who are lively and enthusiastic. At our place of worship, we are likely to be put to sleep or roused to action by the degree of enthusiasm the messenger conveys in the sermon. Most of us enjoy being with people who greet us with warmth and enthusiasm. We enjoy being entertained by musicians who not only play what we want to hear, but play it in ways that create excitement. Our thinking and actions are more likely to be engaged by people who have strong opinions about their positions and who can support their positions with facts that help us understand. In short, the way we convey our subject matter strongly influences how motivated our students are to learn the information.

 

Chapter 9: Questions and Answers

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9 Questions and Answers

Tell me and I may forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.

—Chinese Proverb

Situation

I have a student in my first-grade class who talks all the time. He has a comment about everything and answers for everyone. His mother told me that this is not a new problem. The preacher at their church purposefully asks the child for his opinion at an early point in the sermon, hopefully so the child will feel somewhat less obligated to keep interrupting as the sermon continues. It is beyond annoying.

Analysis/Solution

This is probably a highly anxious child who deep down is concerned that he does not matter unless he hears himself speak. I think the preacher is on the right track. Ask for the child’s opinion early in the day and then again at later intervals. Tell the child that you are very interested in hearing him talk (identify the specific times you will listen to him), but explain that being quiet and keeping thoughts inside until it is time to talk is a sign of growing up. Ask him to watch the behavior of adults in places such as the cafeteria to see what he notices about how often they speak. You might arrange to have him spend some time with older students while asking him to keep score on how many times each student talks. Perhaps it would be possible to give him a job in the classroom that requires him to be the person who makes sure that everyone gets a chance to be heard when questions are asked. Give him a class roster and tell him, “When I ask the class a question, and it is not your turn to answer, I want you to put a circle around the name of the person that I call on to give an answer. I will check with you a few times each day to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak.”

 

Chapter 9: The Challenge of Changing Lives

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ALL EDUCATORS NEED TO BE CONCERNED about those students who become so discouraged that they give up. I hope that the many strategies in this book give you ideas that will make it more difficult for your students to throw in the towel. We certainly compete with so many variables and voices that discourage students and often make them want to give up—unsupportive parents, violence, drugs and alcohol, a cultural attitude of fast and easy, and intense peer pressure.

Our ongoing challenge is to find ways of reconnecting with the natural learner that exists in each of us so that students reawaken with excitement and enthusiasm to the process of learning. Our students need us to have high expectations, apply consequences that teach them when they make mistakes, and affirm who they are. They need us to not give up on them, especially when they are giving up on themselves. We must daily remind ourselves of the enormous influence we can have in changing in our students’ lives by awakening them to the many possibilities that a deeper understanding and awareness of the world around them provides.

 

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