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How can you help your students with challenging behavior who are completely unmotivated and unengaged? Having students who are bored, unmotivated and unengaged, is a huge challenge for teachers! Nothing is harder for a teacher than an unmotivated student.

Ugh! It can be so frustrating trying to reach them!

Here are 10 different ways that I hope will help you motivate your students with challenging behavior.


1. Make It Less Painful: People are motivated to do something if it is less painful to do it than to not do it. When trying to motivate students, be sure to start by making doing the desired behavior, less “painful” than not doing it. In other words, try to make it fun, easy, and quick. 

2. Make It Successful: People are motivated when a behavior meets with success. It’s very challenging to motivate someone to do something if they always fail when doing it. If the child has a history or memory of failing doing it, you will need to back up in your approach and make it a “no fail” activity so that you are sure they will meet with success. You will then be able to build the challenge level of the activity as the student gains momentum. Remember that you will have different expectations for different students.

3. Start Simple: In order to meet with success and to make it less painful, you need to keep the desired behavior VERY SIMPLE. Keeping in mind that this is temporary and that you will increase the difficulty slowly as your student is able. Don’t reach for perfection right away. Figure out a small win based on the child's ability before introducing new skills.

4. Schedule It: Completing a task is easier when it is scheduled and you do not have to think too much about it. For the child who is lacking motivation, consistent schedules are very important. They thrive by knowing what is expected when. Again, make it easy. Visual schedules can be a great help.

5. Follow A Ritual: A ritual is something that you do EVERY time, prior to completing a task. If the low motivation task is writing, your student’s ritual may be that they have a little snack first, or that they use a special pencil, or they get out a special notebook that they use to write in, etc. Follow this ritual every time and it becomes a signal for what is next, without having to think about it. Note: the ritual should be easy, and fun or pleasant. This is one of the most constructive ways to eliminate disruptive behaviors.



6. Find The Fun: Many adults are motivated to do things that are not so fun because they get paid to do so. Yet children, do not get paid to do things that aren’t fun for them (usually). Therefore, when trying to motivate an unmotivated student, it is important to try your best to make the activity that you are asking them to do, fun. Remember, it needs to be something that they think is fun. It may be making a math worksheet with word problems all about basketball or writing with a feather pen or playing with bubbles at recess.

7. Move It: Movement helps us to get motivated because not only does it activate the brain and stimulate positive feelings, but also the act of movement also tends to get momentum working for you. Consider incorporating movement into the activity you are trying to motivate your student to do. This could mean walking to a different location to do it, using a wobble chair or bouncy ball to sit on or sometimes even just standing vs. sitting can be helpful in changing the child's behavior.

8. Create A Habit: Creating a habit around the activity that your student is unmotivated to complete is helpful because it takes away the need/tendency to think about it and instead becomes more automatic. To develop a habit you must do it every time for at least 30 days. This will help create successful daily routines in your classroom while promoting positive behavior.

9. Goldilocks Rule: The Goldilocks Rule is that people are more motivated to engage in a task when it is at a “just right” level, not too hard (frustrating) and not too easy (boring). For student who are unmotivated, lean toward the “too easy” side, in the beginning, while being mindful to keep the activity fun, so the child doesn’t get bored.

10. Look Back, Not Forward: When it comes to motivation, looking back at what you have already accomplished is far more favorable than looking ahead at what you still have to do. Looking ahead can be very overwhelming. Consider ways to give your students small parts of a task a one time and remind them of their accomplishments.


BONUS #1: Reward Them

Most of us adults do things that we don’t really want to do, in exchange for some sort of reward. Often, this reward is external vs. intrinsic. We work for money, we eat right to stay fit, we exercise to stay healthy, we drive the speed limit to avoid getting a speeding ticket, etc.

Many of our students, do not feel rewarded (usually) for doing their school work.


Some do, but many do not. We expect them to do their work because they will get a reward in the long term (better grades, happy parents/teachers, get a job, be self sufficient, etc.). However, many students do not see these things as rewards and/or they are not tangible enough to motivate them. 

While we certainly do not want to get our students dependent on immediate and external rewards, for some children, it is a necessary first step and a great way, with the careful planning to fade it off as you are able. After all, think about how many things we adults do, that are challenging, for only intrinsic reward….it’s probably a pretty short list, yes? Setting up positive reinforcement for good behavior with a reward can be an effective method for students begin to feel motivated and it can help in difficult situations.


It can be difficult to remember these tips when your in the moment and see behavior issues. Grab this How To Motivate cheat sheet by filling out the form below and start introducing these new ideas into your classroom today to target behavior!



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Thanks So Much and Happy Teaching!

Cindy ~Socially Skilled Kids



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