Motivating Young Adolescents: What’s Your Recipe?

How to Keep Middle Grades Students Motivated in the Edu-Kitchen

By: Dru Tomlin

If you read last week's moving, marvelously humble post about Mulch, you know that we've moved from the letter C to the letter M in the ABCs blog. Before we put the next M word in the cognitive crockpot, let's use our senses to explore the letter itself and figure out how it marries with the magical middle grades, shall we? The sound of the letter M is perfect from a sonic perspective because it is the sound of wondering, as in "Mmmmm, that's a good question" and "Mmmmm, that's an interesting chicken nugget." As we all know, early adolescence is an amazing age of discovery propelled by curious, quirky, random, exploratory, exploding questions—because it is the wonder years. And we must buckle up for the queries thrown our way and embrace them wholeheartedly! Who needs the mundane question when you can have the magnificent? Who needs the routine query when you can have the remarkable? We need more questions that blow our hair back, make us pause, and cause us to say, "Mmmm, now that's some kind of question!" And the shape of the letter M is also apropos for early adolescence—because it is the wonder years. Look at the letter M. It's like a student's life. They sometimes run right into an emotional/academic/social wall. But then they muster the strength to scale it. And then they stand at the top of the summit, only to slip down into the valley again. But then they gather themselves (with some support, perhaps) and climb and ascend again—to another summit. Finally, they stand at the top of the peak and proudly survey their road ahead, and hopefully realize they are standing on another precarious ledge. The letter M: that's the shape of early adolescence, for sure. Climb. Fall. And climb again.

Now that we've examined M itself, it's time to tackle another M word that connects to middle level education. Let's check out Motivation in the critical middle grades. And yes, we could go down the traditional route and discuss the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. And yes, we could chat about the good and the bad about incentive programs. And yes, we could even wax on about the merits of token economies. But I have an appetite for something more—in fact, I'd like to create a recipe for motivation in the middle grades. Here we go:

  • Preheat the oven because motivation is best created and served up in a consistently warm, caring environment. You can't put a motivational incentive program into a cold, rigid culture and expect it to flourish. But be careful not to crank up the heat too much or you risk burning your students out.
  • 1 Cup of Asking. Rather than assuming what will motivate your young adolescents, take some time to ask them what will inspire them to work and try harder.
  • 2 Tablespoons of Listening and Collecting. Mix immediately with the cup of Asking because nothing builds a young adolescent's motivation more than knowing that someone is actually listening to them—and is actually collecting and/or writing down information about who they are, what they need, what they want, etc. The Collecting ingredient can be added through an informal face-to-face conversation or a "What Motivates Me" survey/questionnaire. Be sure to add this ingredient with care—stir in gradually and genuinely. Don't just pass out the survey and say, "Do this. Because."
  • 2 Tablespoons Family Input. Simultaneously or immediately after you mix in Listening and Collecting with your students, reach out to the families, ask them to contribute to the recipe, and stir in their input. As with students, this can be accomplished through a survey, a questionnaire, and/or a phone call. These home-grown mix-ins not only add local flavor to the motivational recipe, but they also add things students may have forgotten to mention and they increase family engagement and interest in what you're cooking up!
  • 2 Cups Acting. After you've done a thorough job of Listening and Collecting and mixed it all together, let it rise for approximately 2 weeks in a warm, stable classroom environment while you take time to discuss the savory data with your interdisciplinary team or grade level. While these conversations are happening, find consistent, authentic ways to act on the things that motivate your students. Let your data help you determine if/when extrinsic rewards are used, what kind, how frequently, and to whom. Bottom line with the Acting ingredient: if you've listened and collected but just put their information in a filing cabinet or vegetable crisper, you're not really using or acting on that vital information. That's a demotivator for any student.
  • Passionately yet carefully pour all ingredients into a firm, flexible glass pan (for transparency) and place into the warm, preheated oven in your edu-kitchen.
  • Watch, monitor, and check in to make sure that the baking process is happening in a balanced, even way. Work with other team members to ensure that all students' motivational needs are being met. This will also require time to check in, look at the data, and make the necessary adjustments to the recipe, to the oven temperature, and to the expectations.
  • Throughout the school year, serve up the warm motivational baked goods for each and every student with grace, passion, joy, humor, and care!

So what would your motivational recipe look like for the critical middle grades? Are your students eager and hungry about school—or have they lost their appetite?

More on these topics
Article tags
Student Motivation


20 comments on article "Motivating Young Adolescents: What's Your Recipe?"

I love the 1 cup of asking followed by 2 cups of listening. It's important that you double the amount of listening and let the students share with you what motivates them. Middle school students will react positively to the teachers they feel care about them. Healthy relationships with your students are important in middle school and this is a great way of developing those.

5/15/2017 1:39 PM

I thought the way you described education by way of a recipe was very creative, and it struck a chord with me. I am an avid baker, so it was interesting to visually combine those two parts of my life (teaching and baking)which I had previously never seen a connection between. I also thought the visual about "M" being indicative of a middle schooler's education was quite insightful; in fact, I think that would be a great idea for a motivational poster. Is that corny? Lastly, I appreciated the fact that you included the student's family as an integral part of the recipe. Parents and family members have more invested in their students than anyone else (teachers included) and I do feel that it is vital to include them in the educational discussion about their child.

5/15/2017 4:17 PM

Introducing motivation using a recipe was excellent! 1 cup of asking is very true. Finding out what my students enjoy, helps me to get them and keep them motivated.

10/27/2017 4:37 PM

I completely agree with the importance of listening to students and their opinions. This allows us to learn each of them individually to determine what motivates them which can further influence instruction. Including family to the classroom and making them an important piece of their child's education is vital for a positive learning environment.

11/5/2017 8:37 PM

Listening to students and their opinions is detrimental in the classroom. This allows for myself to see how I can motivate each student. This allows myself to further influence students and their own instruction.

11/21/2017 7:14 PM

I think the components of your recipe are essential for a successful classroom. I enjoyed reading this interesting piece. I believe that it is important to ask students for information but also actively listen and collect information about students as well. Students respond to teachers they believe care about them and using this motivational recipe is sure to help teachers convey that caring.

11/26/2017 5:49 PM

Listening to students opinions and implementing them in class, holds them accountable for the suggested material. Giving students some control of classroom activities is a good motivating factor.

12/5/2017 6:22 PM

I love how you used the letter M to describe adolescent development. Just as they start to figure something out everything changes for them which can make it difficult to keep them motivated. Your point about how they will need lots of support to get back up the hill again really hit home with me.

12/5/2017 7:18 PM

I love the idea of motivation being a recipe. I think we can all agree that engaging students and motivating them to do their work is extremely challenging and requires different pieces, much like many recipes. Just family input, or just listening, isn't going to be enough for the whole motivation aspect. Just like you can't bake a cake with only eggs!

12/6/2017 10:07 AM

Showing motivation as a recipe is a really cool idea. Every teacher worries that not all their students are motivated or engaged with learning and showing a fun recipe on how to build motivation is a perfect way to go step by step and build motivation for students.

12/7/2017 2:44 PM

I really love the comparison of the letter M to adolescents, as it is quite the truth! I also like the motivation recipe as it is not too complicated but is a sure way to engage and motivate middle grades students. It can be complicated to create and sustain incentive systems or other motivational systems. The recipe is straight forward and is easily attainable if teachers do what it says. The final part of the "recipe" where it instructs to watch carefully, monitor, and check in is very important. As educators it is always important to evaluate what we are doing and ask ourselves if what we are doing is helping the kids. Great idea!

12/10/2017 1:21 PM

I found this recipe for student motivation very interesting. I always struggle with finding ways to motivate my students and this "recipe" to be very helpful. It offered simple strategies that I could implement to learn about the interests of my students so that I could help them be more motivated in the classroom.

4/27/2018 5:18 PM

I really enjoyed this blog. Using a "recipe" for motivation is an awesome way to look at it. From my experience in student teaching, I have realized how hard it is to motivate our students. More recently, I have discovered that there are many factors that contribute to motivation among students. This reading provided great advice on how to motivate my students.

4/28/2018 7:51 PM

The links provided are helpful to do more research over each topic. Motivation is not one dimensional. It definitely has many "ingredients" to the "recipe".

4/28/2018 10:27 PM

I really liked this article about motivation, and connecting it to a recipe was the perfect analogy. Motivating my students to learn is something I struggle with and I found this article to be very beneficial to myself

- Becca Ruschell

4/29/2018 1:26 AM

I found this recipe on student motivation to be very interesting as well as helpful. From my experiences, I know it can usually be extremely hard motivating students within the classroom, but this recipe offers useful insights that will help me in the future.

4/29/2018 11:29 AM

Motivating my students in the classroom is so difficult, they simply do not want to do the work. The analogy on the recipe for motivating was so cute. I really enjoyed reading this article. Surprisingly, it was extremely engaging. I need to keep that in mind for my students as well.

4/29/2018 11:51 AM

This article helped to describe the "perfect conditions" for creating a motivating atmosphere for your classroom. I guess what I am struggling with still is how to come up with these different methods to motivate. I really enjoyed the fact that it was suggested to ask the students what motivates them and to also as the parents/families. This helps to connect the goals of the family and student to what I want the goals to be in the classroom.

4/29/2018 12:51 PM

I really enjoyed the way the author compared the process of motivating your students to a cooking recipe. Specifically, I liked how they made sure to interact with the parents asking them what works at home could be an easy way to figure out what works in the classroom.

4/29/2018 5:40 PM

Motivating students period can be difficult let alone a middle schooler. I loved the recipe for motivation and a great recipe as it involves all influential people in their lives. Family, listening, collecting, etc. We as teachers need to watch, monitor, and check-in to make sure that all the needs are being met. What a great way to incorporate a middle grade student into a recipe and an easy way for us to remember what needs to take place. Grace, passion, joy, humor, and care!

11/1/2018 3:49 PM

Please login or register to post comments.

Topic Matter Experts

Bring professional learning to your school. More info...