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Motivating The Unmotivated Middle School Students

I have been working as an RTI Specialist in my current district for seven years. This means I have helped students who perform below average, or are very close to performing below average (based on Standardized test data) for seven years. Over the course of these seven years, I have noticed a few things about the students I see.
I have coined the term “True RTI Student,” used to describe the few students who may have moved around a lot, or have had attendance issues, or whatever other factors have kept them from learning. These students truly have “gaps” in their education, that can be remedied by some reteaching and extra practice. But there is a separate group of students I see, who in all of my progress monitoring, show that they have the ability to perform at grade level, but under- perform in the classroom and on standardized tests. These students usually lack motivation and have a negative attitude about school. These are the students I love fiercely- but can also drive me insane.
So, the question I set out to answer this year was; what are the best ways to motivate the unmotivated?
What are the best ways to motivate the unmotivated? Click To Tweet
For most of my students, especially boys, I have found that movement or physical activity is HUGE. Most research on students will support the idea that they need movement breaks and activity to learn best (Jensen). I mean, just look at the fidget spinner craze if you are at all in doubt.
I currently see students who struggle in math and it’s always like pulling teeth trying to get my unmotivated students to work on understanding anything mathematical. Sure, they were great at talking about their weekends, popular music, and video games, but when it came to a math word problem, the whining and scrunched up faces began.
Then one day, one of my expo markers dried out and my student, “Jo,” asked if he could throw it in the garbage can. I don’t know what made me allow him to throw something across the room that day, maybe I could sense his restlessness, but I said okay, toss it. He did, and he made it! The pure expression on his face was priceless. I had found a motivator. The next day I brought in a basketball hoop, put taped lines on the floor, and announced that for every 3 topics in his math program he mastered, he would get a minute at the hoop. It was like I had a new student. He started working, like really working and trying to understand equivalent fractions and ratio word problems like I had never seen before.
I wish I could say this type of motivator works on every student, but every student is different. For some students, just forming a caring relationship was motivation enough for them to try and do better (Marzano & Marzano) I had a female student this year, “Eve,” who reminded me of myself in 7th grade. She would openly tell me that “I just don’t care about school. I really want tocare, but I can’t make myself. Everything seems so boring and useless to me.” I spent time with Eve*, just talking with her because I really did see a lot of myself in her. I got to know her likes and dislikes, and I shared stories with her from when I was in middle school, and slowly but surely, her grades started improving. I believe Eve didn’t want to disappoint me, and I gave her the confidence to try at school. I repeatedly told her that she was smart and she could do it, and she eventually started believing it.
The key is finding what makes your students tick Click To Tweet
The key is finding what makes your students tick. Nobody likes to be bored. Nobody likes to feel like they aren’t good at school. So, find something they are good at- and celebrate it! Bring it into your classroom. Make your students want to come to your class every day. The first time you are absent, and you are met with, “We missed you so much! Don’t you ever be absent again!” It will all be worth it.

Jensen, Eric. “Chapter 4 Movement and Learning.” Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.
Marzano, Robert J., and Jana S. Marzano. “The Key to Classroom Management.” Educational Leadership:Building Classroom Relationships:The Key to Classroom Management. ASCD, Sept. 2003.

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