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Motivation: The Key to Academic Success

Motivation is key to school success. Just as the actor asks a director, “What is my motivation, for this scene?,” the child turns to teachers, parents, and peers to discover the “why” of learning. Motivation is often defined as a need or drive that energizes behavior toward a goal.

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As the new school year begins the most common problem that teachers and parents face is lack of student motivation. Motivation can either come from within the student (intrinsic) or from outside (extrinsic). A child who is intrinsically motivated performs a task because of the joy that comes from learning new materials. A child who performs in school to gain parent approval, grades, or rewards is externally motivated. While research shows that those children with internal motivation may achieve greater success, teachers and parents often find that many children seek external reinforcers. Parents who ask questions that lead to more questions for a child are more successful in developing intrinsic motivation. For example, a parent that gives a child a special toy as a “reward” for reading a lesson about how an airplane works and for completing the related homework that requires answers to questions about the parts of an airplane will stimulate less motivation than the parent who helps a child discover how planes work by building a balsam plane and letting the child practice flying it. This parent can ask what changes the plane’s flight pattern. The child can then experiment, discover and generate new questions and new discoveries.

Motivation, as parents and teachers know, often varies depending on the setting, the people involved, the task and the situation. A child with a learning disability may be a very reluctant reader who resists reading a science assignment or writing the homework assignment but eagerly absorb all the teacher shows about vaporization of water in a science class. The key for each learner is to find that which motivates.

Unfortunately, other factors often intervene to lessen a student’s motivation. Some of these factors are:

Fear of failure

Children can be afraid to complete work because they are afraid to make mistakes. They do not want to look foolish in front of their peers, teachers, siblings, or parents. A child with a learning disability might, for example, constantly distract the class with wonderful humor, but never complete an assignment or answer a question in class. The humor covers his reading difficulty and is a cover-up for his inability to complete his work as well as most of the students in the class.

Lack of challenge

Children can be bored with schoolwork. This may be for good reason. A gifted student may be “unmotivated” in a class that repeatedly explains a concept s/he already understands. A child with a learning disability may be bored if the material available to study a concept is written far below the child’s cognitive ability. The child with LD may also be unmotivated if it is apparent that the teacher attributes a lack of potential success to the child based on the label of LD. If the teacher, in this case, does not challenge the student, the student may discern the teacher’s apparent assessment of ability and simply not demand more stimulating content.

Lack of meaning

A student may simply believe that the schoolwork is not important because s/he cannot see how it relates to everyday life. This can be especially troubling for a student with LD. A student with a visual-motor problem, for example, may find it very difficult to organize math problems in order to assure the correct answer. The student always gets the problem wrong because the columns of a long addition problem get mixed up. That student knows the calculator can do the problem correctly in a second. The student is likely to see no meaning to a class on addition, division, or any other math concept.

Emotional problems

A child with an emotional problem may have difficulty learning because s/he cannot focus in class. Anxiety, fear, depression or perhaps problems related to home could interfere. Children with LD often have emotions related to the frustration of the learning disability or other related emotional patterns that limit motivation for schoolwork.


Some children use schoolwork, or lack of schoolwork, as an expression of anger towards the parents. This is often called a passive-aggressive approach. For example, if a child feels intense pressure to succeed academically, a factor the student cannot control, the student may yell or argue with the parent. Rather, low grades are earned. This is something within the student’s range of control. The more the parent tries to control and structure reinforcers, the lower the grades fall.

Desire for attention

Unfortunately some children use lack of academic success as a way of getting parent or teacher attention. Too often in today’s rapid paced world parents may not give children who are doing well the attention they need. Children that come home, do their chores, complete their homework, and achieve academically can be ignored simply because they are not causing problems. Children who act out or who seem “helpless” with schoolwork often can gain support and attention. Attention for children is a powerful motivator. It is important to periodically review what types of behavior earn a child attention at home or at school.

Children with LD can find learning a difficult and painful process. Students with LD and/or ADHD are often frustrated in learning situations. Memory problems, difficulties in following directions, trouble with the visual or auditory perception of information, and an inability to perform paper-and-pencil tasks (i.e., writing compositions, notetaking, doing written homework, taking tests) and other problems can make learning a truly “unmotivating” chore. Children with LD and/or ADHD also often think their lack of school success is not worth the effort. Since their grades often seem lower than those earned by other children they may not see a relationship between effort expended in school and academic success. Thus, to motivate them to achieve academically can be especially challenging.

How can parents help

Parents are central to student motivation. The beginning of a new school year is very important. Children with LD and ADHD often struggle with change. Parents can help get the year off to a good start.

  1. Provide a warm, accepting home environment.
  2. Give clear directions and feedback.
  3. Create a model for success
  4. Build on the student’s strengths
  5. Relate schoolwork to the student’s interests
  6. Help build a family structure that fosters consistent work towards the goal.
  7. Help the student to have some control over how and when he learns.
  8. Emphasize the child’s progress rather than his or her performance in comparison to the other students in the class or family.
  9. Remember to reinforce the behavior you want.
  10. Use reinforcers wisely. Recall that intrinsic motivation works best. Follow a child’s interests, when possible, rather than spending time building elaborate reward systems.
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