“My child seemed to love school before and now they are saying, ‘This isn’t for me, I can’t do this, I’m not good at this.’” That’s what eighth grade history teacher Rachael Streitman heard from parent after parent last year.
Student motivation plummeted when schooling was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Streitman, who teaches at Mayfield Middle School in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, says many kids came back to in-person classes less confident and less invested.
Even before the pandemic, educators dealt with decreasing levels of engagement as children progressed through the grades. As students return to classrooms this fall amid an ongoing mental health crisis, finding ways to re-engage them with school will be essential, and experts say teachers have an important role to play.
“It kind of sounds weird,” says Johnmarshall Reeve, a psychology professor at Australian Catholic University and the author of “Supporting Students’ Motivation: Strategies for Success,” “but if you really want to help student motivation, rather than work with the students, the best thing you can do is work with their teachers.”
What Kids Need to Stay Motivated
One way of looking at student motivation is through a framework researchers call self-determination theory. Developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1970s and 1980s, SDT posits that motivation is natural in children but only continues if their needs for three things are met: autonomy, competence and relatedness. In other words, kids in school need to feel like they have control over something, that they’re good at (or getting better at) something and that they’re connected to someone.
“There are literally hundreds, probably thousands, of correlational, longitudinal and experimental studies suggesting that SDT-informed teaching enhances motivation and engagement,” says Erika A. Patall, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
Her own research shows that “the effects are on the large side relative to other education interventions.” Self-determination theory isn’t new, but it’s “more relevant now because the problem is even more evident than it was prior to the pandemic,” Patall says.
Alison Wood teaches at Denfeld High School in Duluth, Minnesota. There, during distance learning, “some people just powered through it and some people just shut down.” She says when students came back to school, “the normal tricks of the trade … being entertaining, being hands-on, being creative, all the normal things weren’t cutting it.”
She and two other teachers hadn’t heard of SDT, but they recognized students’ need for autonomy and competence. They built a “student tracker” to give teens flexibility in selecting activities, pacing themselves and setting deadlines – rather than leaving them overwhelmed by a long list of past-due, mandatory tasks. That also improved student-teacher relationships (what SDT researchers would call “relatedness”). “There wasn’t this tension all the time about, ‘What are you working on? You are missing this! Blah blah blah,” Wood says.
Motivational Strategies in the Classroom
As it turns out, a lot of the things great teachers do fall into the three buckets of autonomy, competence and relatedness.
In Norristown, Pennsylvania, middle school teacher Selenia Tello walks around with stickers at lunch. When a student asks for one, she knows they’re looking to connect. “And it turns into a ‘What’s up? How are you doing? How is school?’” she says.
That kind of check-in didn’t happen as often during the pandemic: “A lot of our focus went to, ‘Keep your mask on, stay safe, six feet away,’” Tello says. Like Wood, she’s big on choice: “If they don’t want to write, they can draw something. Or we can have a conversation that lets me understand you understand what the content is.”
Ralph Saint-Louis, a high school science teacher in Lowell, Massachusetts, regularly solicits feedback from students, and every quarter they give him a formal teacher report card. He acts on their responses in a visible way.
Saint-Louis, who is also a fellow for Teach Plus, a nonprofit that fosters teacher leadership, asks students to choose an “accountability partner” at the beginning of the year and then seats them nearby. He makes sure everyone has a more knowledgeable classmate seated close: “So you can get the answer without always going to the teacher.” Each of these strategies helps students feel more related to each other, to him, to school and to the idea of schooling – and more autonomous and competent, too.
Streitman, the Ohio teacher, says she uses what’s called “scaffolding” to meet students’ need to feel competent. It requires offering Goldilocks-zone projects that stretch kids just enough – and give them just enough direction – to grow without getting so frustrated they quit. Small-group activities, in which students have to rely on each other to achieve a common goal, help foster autonomy and relatedness as well.
Even though some teachers are already intuitively practicing self-determination theory, being explicit about the framework, and the psychological needs behind these practices, helps them do it more and better, Patall says.
Take giving choices, for example. That strategy is not as straightforward as it seems. “If you give your 6-year-old a choice between eating their dinner or going to bed, it doesn’t exactly make them feel autonomous,” she explains. “People can use choices in controlling ways.”
Teachers are less likely to do that if they understand the “why” behind engagement strategies. Reeve says autonomy-supportive teaching also requires acknowledging and validating students’ negative emotions, providing explanations that help them understand the importance or utility of a task that doesn’t inherently interest them, and using invitational language (like “you might consider” or “ when you’re ready” rather than “you’ve got to”).
Common Barriers to Student Engagement and Motivation
If this theory and related practices work so well, why do we still have disengaged students?
For starters, Patall says, many teacher preparation programs don’t cover SDT.
Adrian Reyna, who teaches at Longfellow Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, points to a different culprit: the stress of state-mandated standards and testing, which can get in the way of relationship-building. Experts say teachers can wind up thinking a more controlling style is required to make it through the material.
They also wonder, as Wood puts it, “They’re only 10th graders, can they be in charge?”
Reeve says educators can have a fixed mindset when it comes to individual students’ motivation, too, thinking some kids are just more naturally engaged than others.
There’s a bit of truth to this. Kids who have the personality trait of conscientiousness, for example, are likely to start out more motivated to comply with classroom directives, he says. And yet, struggling students can become significantly more motivated, studies show. We can always move the needle.
That’s especially important to remember when it comes to students with disabilities, says Streitman. “Too many times people say, ‘Here’s the accommodation, and here’s how it’s going to be delivered to you.’” But even in a classroom with young, nonverbal students, there are ways to give students choices, she says.
Making Learning Relevant
Tello points to another big barrier to engagement: lack of cultural relevance. “If you go search on Pinterest or on Teachers Pay Teachers (an online marketplace where teachers can buy and sell educational materials) … the activities don’t always really correspond to the experiences our students have.”
Reyna says the standards in Texas are “very, very focused on the dominant narratives of our history.” For his students of him, most of whom are people of color, “it’s not just unrelatable, but it’s also alienating,” he says.
Using redlining as an example, he says, “When you take that history and provide historical context to their current situation and the reality that they are living every single day, that’s when you see the minds blown, the light bulbs go off, and everything starts to connect for them. That’s when you really start to see that engagement shoot through the roof.”
And cultural responsiveness isn’t just about race, Saint-Louis says: “It is so much more.” Educators can make required material more relevant by connecting it to any piece of a student’s identity or experience. Last year, for instance, Saint-Louis surveyed kids about their interests and then related Punnett squares (a concept in genetics) to changing norms around pronouns, used COVID-19 to teach mutations and traced each teen’s favorite food through the digestive system.
How Parents Can Help Increase Engagement
If your child is refusing to go to school, seems disengaged or is complaining about being bored in class, reach out to the teacher. Tick through the SDT list as you talk to your child and the teacher: Are there opportunities throughout the day for students to make choices, feel like they’re good at something and feel close to their teachers or classmates?
“Any good teacher is going to have a growth mindset [and] be willing and wanting to engage their families and their students in a way that more authentically addresses their needs,” says Reyna.
Another reason kids become disengaged is because tasks are too easy or too hard for them. Ask your child whether the material is challenging enough, or if there’s a subject that’s more difficult than others. Teachers are often ready to offer additional resources on either end of this spectrum. If the teacher is unwilling or unable, reach out to the principal or other educators in the building about next steps.
You can also have conversations with your child that seek to find value in completing a task, even if it doesn’t feel intrinsically interesting. Talk about a time you did something you didn’t want to do because you knew it would put you closer to a goal that did matter to you.
To nudge more systemic change, ask your child’s principal or your local school board about how they’re supporting teachers to strengthen children’s motivation and engagement. You can also ask what the PTA can do to increase opportunities for educators to share their best practices.
When it comes to teaching that is culturally relevant and needs-supportive, Reyna says, “The students want it, they crave this kind of pedagogy and it’s up to us to deliver for them.”