Good Questions: How do you motivate students?

I was recently asked how I motivate my students.  Immediately, I thought, what don’t I do to motivate students?  I do everything short of standing on my head… no, wait a minute — I do that too, along with cartwheels, Captain’s Coming, Indian dances, and “old school” 4-Square.

Motivating students is at the very heart of being an effective teacher.  It’s a huge topic that encompasses just about everything we do, so let’s break it down.

The first thing I do to motivate students is to teach fun, engaging lessons.  We all invest more time and effort in our work when we enjoy it.  Nothing is fun all the time — sometimes work is just work — but as often as possible, I want kids to be so engaged in their learning that they forget they’re working.  I often say that the best part of being an elementary school teacher is getting to be so many different things — a reader, a writer, a scientist, a mathematician, a historian — and part of the job is to be a performer, too.  Kids get excited about school in part because I am so excited about school.  Enthusiasm and passion are contagious, and they are an essential part of any teaching practice.

But having fun is meaningless without results.  The second way I motivate kids is by ensuring they are successful.  In my classroom, we live by the matra, effective effort plus time equals success.  Success is not about being lucky or about being born a certain way.  Everyone can be successful if they have a clear, measurable goals, and then put in the time and effort required to achieve them.  My students know what success looks like through exemplars, rubrics, criteria for success, and assessment benchmarks.  Together, we set individual goals (really, SMART goals), and I give kids the strategies and tools they need.  In their classwork and their homework, students put in effective effort over time, and they succeed.

By saying all of my students are successful, I don’t mean that I inflate grades or have an “everyone wins a trophy” mentality.  I set the bar high, and because of the way we do our work, everyone clears the bar.  Sometimes, that requires special accommodations and modifications, like special education or individualized behavior plans.  And it requires lots of differentiation, so children with different academic needs have that “just-right” level of challenge.

But for every student, success feels good.  And when kids are successful, they want to keep being successful, which is one of the strongest motivators of all.

Finally, to motivate my students, I form close bonds with them.  From the first day of school, we begin building trust.  We play games together, share stories and pictures of our families, and, yes, do headstands and other feats of fitness at recess.  I let them know who I am, and I show that I care about who they are.  We create a classroom community that is about warmth, trust, and respect.  Because, sometimes, the path to success is a rough one.  Sometimes, students don’t believe in themselves, or they haven’t yet learned how good it feels to work hard and succeed.  When that’s the case, my students will work hard anyway for no other reason than because they care about me.

Our ultimate goal is for students to become self-motivated learners.  But it takes a while to get there, and in the meantime, to motivate my students, I use every tool I’ve got.

8 thoughts on “Good Questions: How do you motivate students?

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. Love the culture that you set in your room!
    I also wanted to share that today I am trying out the “I Can Do It” book shared in the Cognitive Psychology post.

  2. Sometimes I find that the educational assistants in the room end up watching and chuckle at the “show” of headstands that I am doing to motivate my students. If you can share the human side of you and aren’t afraid of humiliating yourself, then you are in the right profession!

    • Very true! You certainly can’t be concerned about looking cool to other adults in our profession. It took me a while to get used to the feeling of having other adults in my room — for a long time, I had to pretend they weren’t there.

  3. I’m enjoying your blogs. I’ve read through several. I also believe to motivate your students, that first, they need to know you care deeply about them, set the bar high, and truly have a relationship with them. Journey together while learning and growing. I’ll continue to read your comments. Thanks.

    • Thanks for your question, Michael. It takes time for most young children to learn to motivate themselves. In the beginning, they need parents and teachers to motivate them to do things that are challenging. The way I get them to make that shift — from relying on me for motivation to relying on themselves — is by teaching them that effective effort plus time equals success. Children need concrete experiences to prove to them that their effort pays off. Once children succeed at something difficult, and understand that they succeeded because of their effort, that propels them to want to put in effort and experience success again. Success eventually becomes its own motivator. But initially, children need a great deal of encouragement and motivation from caring and supportive adults.

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