9 Tips for Motivating Reluctant Learners

Johnny looooved math.

He’d come every day to our math lesson with enthusiasm, ready to take on any numerical challenges I had for him. Then it would be reading time. Johnny’s face and demeanor immediately changed. He pretended to look for his reader’s notebook in his desk, then went to the bathroom for 10 minutes, followed by a trip to the water fountain. By the time he got to work, the period was over.

Do you have a ‘Johnny’ in your class?

9 Tips for Motivating Reluctant Learners

Maybe you have a student who just puts her head down when it’s math or writing time. I had a student  who groaned when she heard the words ‘Writer’s Workshop.’

When students refuse to put effort into something they find difficult, it can be so challenging and frustrating. We want to help them, but we need them to put in some work too.

I feel your pain.

It’s Normal!

It’s normal to avoid tasks that ‘hurt.’ I can’t count how often I’ve passed by my ever-overstuffed pantry and told myself I’d get to it later. Or, those few tasks I keep pushing from one to-do list to the next (I really should clean my oven soon). But, I’d rather play Words with Friends.

We all do it, don’t we?

I’m sure you’ll find you already do some of these (because you are awesome), but I hope you find some new ideas you can try to help with motivating reluctant learners:

Is it fear of failure, social anxiety (performing in front of a peer), difficulty, or bad experiences in the past? Validate their feelings and tell them they can help you by letting you know what exactly they don’t like about the task, as well as tell you what kinds of activities they do like, and what topics they’re interested in.

We’ve all heard this one before, right? It’s so true, though, so I had to mention it. Kids work best when work is meaningful to them. Reading or writing about football always helped motivate and engage “Johnny.” Find out what your students are passionate about, and use that when you can.

Praise their efforts, not only their achievement. Let them see you value hard work, not only correct answers. Here’s a great article by Carol Dweck about finding a good balance with praise.

Sometimes letting kids use whiteboards and markers, play-doh or wikki-stix, or any other rarely used supplies, to highlight words, for example, goes a long way in motivation! Read this post for some fun supplies to use in small groups.

It can be as simple as having 2 books for your guided reading lesson and letting them choose which one to read. Or, 2 topics to write about or 3 different phonics activities they can pick from to practice a skill. They’ll be much more committed if they have a part in the decision-making.

When people are anxious about something, they put a mental block on learning or performing. They work much better when they are relaxed and in a good mood. Get a joke book and start your small-group lesson with a silly joke, or do a fun quick activity, like a couple of rounds of ‘Would you rather?’ ‘Two Truths and a Lie,’ or another brain break.

You can also start by asking them something personal you know they are excited about. Whenever I asked Johnny to tell me about his latest game, his face lit up and he got animated and re-energized from talking about it for just a couple of minutes! This also shows them you care, and they are more willing to work with someone they feel genuinely cares about them.

Speaking of starting your session, I find that starting with an easy task I know they can do really helps boost their confidence and makes them more willing to try a harder task. When it gets too hard and they want to give up, I remind them our brains really grow when we try hard things, and if we never try hard things, our brains turn to mush.

For writing, I love to start with a labeling activity because it has built-in differentiation and everyone can have success with it no matter their writing level. Students who struggle with writing might label with initial sounds, while students with more advanced ability will label with details.

I have labeling pages for themes throughout the year, as well as phonics labeling pages to add scaffolding and focus on a phonics skill.

For reading, start with rereading familiar books to help kids gain confidence. This could be a poem, fluency cards, decodable books, or any text the child can read independently.

This is a big one! My students set their own goals often! They fill out a goal slip, which I staple to the back of their notebooks. They work towards that goal until the next time we meet to check in, usually once a week or every other week. They check off their progress- whether they met their goal or still need to practice and make a new goal.

Yes, it can be challenging to motivate reluctant learners, but when they achieve something they’ve worked hard for, it’s soooo rewarding, don’t you agree?

If you try any of these ideas for motivating reluctant learners, let me know in the comments!

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