Parents, teachers and tutors know well that apathetic and unmotivated children represent a problem of almost epidemic proportions in our classrooms, in particular, at the highest-grade levels. The most important question to answer is what a teacher or a tutor can do to motivate a reluctant, apathetic, and/or helpless learner. This is no simple question with an easy answer. One motivational strategy that can help is the use of effort praise. In few words, this is how this strategy works:
Minimize the child’s mistakes and praise his effort. Help the child understand that errors and mistakes are part of the learning process, and they are necessary so that learning can take place. It is important that adults pay attention to small changes, so that we can praise those first signs that indicate movement toward the child’s goal (for instance, when we see the child focused and completing the task). Some examples of effort praise are:
- Your math is improving every day.
- I’m really glad that you _____.
- You are really concentrating today.
- The important thing is that you tried your best.
- I admire how much effort you put on this essay.
- This is the neatest job I have seen you doing.
- I love seeing you doing your class work.
Focus on strengths and assets rather than on weaknesses and errors. We can praise the part of the task that the child has already gotten right, minimize errors, and then we tell the child what she needs to do (the steps and strategies) to complete her task successfully.
- Make sure the child clearly sees the connection between his own effort and school success. Children who understand this important effort-achievement connection are more likely to respond to difficult tasks and failure with less stress, less frustration and more positive expectations about the outcome of the event.
- Make sure that you define effort correctly, telling the child that effort is spending effective and strategic time on the learning task. Just trying harder or wasting time doing random activities that are not working is not effective effort. Effective and strategic effort focuses on using learning strategies and procedures, that is, trying hard in a particular way is what leads to success. When the strategy or procedure that the child is using is not working, we tell him or her to try a different strategy or procedure. Teaching children to make strategic effort attributions helps them see failure and academic difficulties as problem solving situations in which the search for a better strategy to use becomes the focus. When we train an apathetic, unmotivated, and/or helpless student in how to use strategic effort attributions, we can weaken the negative perception that lack of ability is what causes failure (e.g. “I’m dumb! I’ll never learn this!”); most learning problems are rooted in either children not using learning strategies, or applying an inefficient learning strategy for the specific skill that they are learning. The child simply needs to find a better learning strategy to solve that particular problem.
- Teach the child to see academic errors and mistakes as her cue to change the learning strategy she is currently using.
- Explicitly tell and show the child how to manage failure and setbacks in a constructive and strategic way, for example, you can say, “This is not working. What is another way that you can do this?” Alternatively, say, “What is another strategy that you can use?”
To better understand the full impact of low motivation on learning, you can read my article, How Children Learn: Understanding Motivation
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