Motivating the Reluctant Learner

Changing student motivation from being disruptive to being successful

Working with students who typically haven’t been very successful in the classroom can be a challenge. Luckily, there are a few simple approaches to take that will help you motivate those reluctant learners from day one.

Every child wants to succeed. I know this is true. If you want to be successful at motivating the reluctant learner, you need to believe this as well. In my experience working with students from many different backgrounds, upbringing, family situations, and home lives, every student thrives when he or she feels a sense of accomplishment.

Sure, sometimes this sense of accomplishment comes from getting the teacher to lose her temper or hitting a friend in the head with a well-aimed spitball. Our jobs, then, become refocusing that student’s goal away from those negative accomplishments towards the positive accomplishments – those that equate to success in school and, ideally, in life.

Sounds easy, right? You and I both know, though, that bad habits are hard to break. Students who have a habit of looking for success in ways that undermine what we’re doing as teachers can often have the hardest time changing their habits.

When I start a school year, I quickly recognize those students who are struggling to share the same measure of success I’ve set for my students. While many teachers try to ignore the disruptive behaviors hoping that they will just go away, oftentimes it leads to more disruptive behaviors as those students look for other ways to successfully get your teaching off-task.

Instead of ignoring that disruptive student, addressing that reluctant learner as early in the year (or day or even lesson for that matter) will help you successfully guide the student towards a new standard of success. What do I mean?

Here’s an example I’m sure most of us can relate to:

You see little Johnny throw a broken pencil at another student. What do you do? Ignore it? Yell at Johnny? Tell him to go to the office? Assign detention?

How about this response?

“Johnny, please don’t throw anything in my class ever. Do you understand?” stated in a very calm voice.

“But he threw it at me first!”

“Johnny, do you understand what I told you?”

Grumbling, “Yeah.”


The rest of class passes without Johnny throwing any more pencils. On his way out of the classroom, you mention to him, “Johnny, I appreciate you not throwing anything in my class. Nicely done.” You say this with all sincerity, but not making too big a deal out of it. Johnny doesn’t reply but just shuffles off to his next class.

The next day, Johnny comes into class as usual. For the first five minutes, Johnny doesn’t throw anything at anyone. You casually move near him and say very quietly to him, “You’re having a good day today, aren’t you?” Johnny doesn’t respond, but he refrains from throwing anything for the entire class. Again, at the end of class, you mention to Johnny, “Nice work today.”

And today, Johnny smiles. By building on the small successes your reluctant learners experience, you can gradually motivate them to achieve higher and higher levels of success.

This sounds like a simple example, and you’re right! It is incredibly simple to bring students over to “your side” in the battle, to stop fighting with your students and start helping them fight their own battles against their anti-social and disruptive impulses. By helping the student understand that your role isn’t to always highlight their disruptive behavior but instead to help them achieve a more productive model of success; the disruptive student often becomes a key ally in your classroom.

Your work isn’t done with this tiny victory. Once you’ve broken the initial bad habit of disruptive behavior, you will then need to help your students understand how “success” is defined in your class. Questions like “Are you being successful?” and “When you do that are you being successful?” and “How does that help you be successful?” all work to help the student understand that part of your job is to help him or her be successful.

Each day, I write on the board my measure of success for that day. It’s usually something like, “I will have at least 15 note cards completed for my research paper.” or “I will understand why the main character decided to go to the lake,” or something like that. When a student is off-task, it’s a simple matter for me to approach him or her and say, “Are you being successful? How can I help you be successful?” Done with the right tone and approach, these two questions can truly transform the way you and your students interact.

Once your reluctant learners (and everyone else for that matter!) realize that you are really there to help them be successful, that you want them to do well in school and build the skills they need to be successful in life, their reluctance to learn gradually disappears in favor of a new motivation to succeed, a measure of success based more closely on positive productive goals rather than disruptive negative goals.