Needs Focused Teaching

The Two Fundamentals of Dealing With Motivation Problems

It’s a fact of any teacher’s life, no matter how fluffy and positive you’ve made your classroom, no matter how many preventive strategies you’re using – kids are kids; there will be problems! These strategies may be helpful when the problems occur. 


Before we get properly started on the responses, I want to mention a couple of important points. Firstly, this little selection of scripts and strategies does not represent the last word on behaviour management. I don’t profess to have all the answers – not by a long piece of chalk – and I’m sure there are some points I make which fly in the faces of psychological/biological/educational theory. 

Here’s something to think about though… did you know that many parenting books are written by ‘experts’ who’ve never even been a parent, and many behaviour management books are written by academics who haven’t set foot in a classroom since they were students themselves? I’m a practical man, not a theorist. What makes me so confident about these common sense strategies is that I know through real, practical experience in the classroom that they work. I have used these ideas in some very challenging settings with some equally challenging (and vulnerable) students and they worked for me. They helped me not only to survive but to succeed; they helped my students and they helped me. So I don’t really care what theorists say. The proof of the pudding, so they say, is in the eating – and when you get it right it tastes just fine. 

However, you’ll find that these strategies work much, much better if they are used within a framework in which the preventive strategies to satisfy Belonging, Power and Fun are already firmly in place. Remember at the start of all this we said that any attempt to motivate students will only work properly if the dreaded demotivators are first reduced? Well, that’s the purpose of the preventive strategies. Get those set up first and you’ll find these responses having much more impact. 

Now, before we go through the scenario-specific responses there are two fundamentals which will certainly have relevance regardless of the particular problem you’re dealing with… 

  1. Always try to find the reason for the problem. 

There’s a reason for everything (I’m reminded of that fact every time I go to the bank and remember why I’m broke – it’s because I spend too much). There is always a reason why a student doesn’t want to start work. There’s always a reason why they shout out. There’s always a reason why they hit each other. Whatever the problem, there’s a reason why it’s happening. 

Telling him to ‘get on with his work’ is a typical stock response when Jonny is messing around but it doesn’t address the underlying reasons he’s off task and therefore doesn’t usually work – certainly not for long. He might get his head down while you stand over him but as soon as your back his turned Jonny will revert to unscrewing the table leg unless the underlying issue has been addressed – in this case that the table leg is infinitely more interesting than the worksheet you’ve given him! 

If you’re faced with students who flatly refuse to get started, are constantly chatting, are totally uninterested in the exciting task put before them or turn up to class two days late, it’s best to try and find the reason why this might be happening before trying to stop it happening again. 

The problem could be any of the de-motivators we mentioned early on in this resource pack (fear, boredom etc). But why bother second guessing? The only way to find out for sure what is behind their reluctance to take part is to ask them. This is obviously best done out of earshot of other students and in a non-threatening manner and once a trusting, mutually respectful teacher/student relationship has been established. 

  1. Be consistent. 

All students – those you are dealing with, as well as those watching you deal with them, need to see you being consistent. They need to know that you will deal with anyone who is not doing as they should be every time they are not doing it. After all, if any student is witnessed by others to be ‘getting away with it’, you can bet your life that other students will be encouraged to try getting away with it too. Then you’ve got real problems. 

An easy way to remember it is this: If you allow it, you encourage it. 

Letting Vanessa wear her headphones (because she has an awful temper and really kicks off when challenged) sends a clear signal to her and others – she will wear them again, as will the six others who saw her get away with it. When you bend the rules for one, you create a rod for your own back. 

In every classroom situation there are going to be students who push boundaries too far no matter how positive and student-centred you are. Some won’t respect a teacher who is too ‘nice.’ Some are intent on ruining a lesson no matter how engaging and exciting the tasks. Some think any teacher who doesn’t have tattoos is a push-over. These are all reasons why a system of stepped consequences, consistently applied, is essential. 

Hopefully the setting you’re working in will have a behaviour policy in place and will provide you with a nice selection of shiny consequences for you to take down off the shelf and use in response to each and every behaviour problem which occurs. But just remember, it’s the way you apply these consequences which affects their success – you have to be consistent. You can’t use them one day and not the next, can’t apply them to one student and not the next, or apply them with a patronising sneer to one student and an apologetic wince to another. You must do what you say you’re going to do – every time. 

If your rule on not finishing work in class is that students have to return at break or stay behind after school for ten minutes to finish it – then it must happen. And remember, if you don’t chase up the ‘no- shows’ then you may as well not bother with having the rule in the first place. Yes, chasing up these ‘detention dodgers’ will be time consuming, but only in the short term. It’s a case of ‘short term pain for long term gain’. Being consistent means keeping detailed records every time they miss a scheduled meeting or detention too. It might mean liaising with form tutors and heads of year. It might mean making countless phone calls home or even embarking on home visits. But all this leg work builds your reputation as indomitable and once they get the fact that you don’t give in, that you follow up every time – they will start to be tamed and you will start to save time. You’ll no longer have to constantly repeat your instructions. You’ll be the teacher who walks in a room and gets immediate respect and compliance from the rowdiest group. Short term pain, long term gain. 

Oh, nearly forgot, while we’re on the subject of consequences, don’t get emotional when giving them either. A calm, matter-of-fact approach is far more effective than shrieking and wailing – no matter how much eye rolling, muttering, complaining and swearing they try. Keep the emotional outbursts for the times they have done something right. If you have a penchant for standing on the table shouting, do it when Jonny has finished his first essay – by way of celebration. 

Finally, don’t get drawn into their attempts to start an argument; this will not only give them the reaction they are trying to provoke (making you appear weak in the process), you will also run the risk of the situation escalating to a much more serious incident. Once they get you started, they don’t want to stop. 

On my live training courses I always deal with consequences last because I want to hammer home the clear message that there are a multitude of effective preventive strategies to encourage students to stay on the right tracks before needing to resort to sanctioning: focusing on building positive relationships; using sincere praise as often as possible; making sure instructions and directions are explicit; 

getting parents involved; setting up buddy schemes; having student meetings; integrating cooperative group work; putting humour in lessons; giving them responsibilities, to name just a few. 

The reason I labour this message is not because I’m against sanctioning but because there is a danger people will rely on consequences as the only available behaviour response. Doing so can create a very punitive, oppressive atmosphere which causes more problems than it solves. We need consequences to enforce boundaries and kids need boundaries in order to feel secure – but like any tool they should be used properly, and not relied upon as an easy way out. 

So those two points – trying to find the reason for the behaviour and having a hierarchy of consistently applied consequences on hand – are necessary for most problems we come across. 


Want to hear/

My book ‘Motivate The Unmotivated’ covers a range of practical ways to respond to some of the specific problems you’ll face in a classroom environment populated by unmotivated students. Find it on Amazon HERE. 

I many more Classroom Management books and resources too! Find them all by searching for the following titles…..

Take Control of the Noisy Class

Attention-Grabbing Starters & Plenaries

Classroom Management Success in 7 Days or Less

The Cooperative & Active Learning Tool Kit

The Fun Teacher’s Tool Kit

Connect With Your Students

The Classroom Management Tool Kit