Motivation problems—we’ve all been there. Did you order take out for dinner when you already had a meal planned for the evening? Check! And then you ditched that much-needed exercise class because you just weren’t feeling it? Double-check! To top it off, you had to stay up late to finish that project you had plenty of time to work on earlier in the day. Yep—everyone can pinpoint a time (or several) in their lives when they felt sluggish or couldn’t get started on a task. As adults, then, we can relate to our learners who feel a similar lack of motivation. The difference is that adults have the experience and capacity to acknowledge when they need intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external) support to help them launch when they feel unmotivated. Learners, particularly neurodivergent learners, see a lack of motivation as something that is wrong with them, which causes a cascade of negative emotions about their self-worth and capabilities. Therefore it is imperative that we discover the cause of a learner’s inability to motivate, then help find strategies for initiating and maintaining their motivation. Let’s explore what motivation is and how we can spark motivation in our learners to help them kick-start and remain on their path to potential.
What is Motivation?
Verywellmind.com defines motivation as, “…the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It is what causes you to act, whether it is getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or reading a book to gain knowledge. Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. In everyday usage, the term “motivation” is frequently used to describe why a person does something. It is the driving force behind human actions.” After re-reading that definition a few times, it’s clear how complex motivation truly is. If a learner struggles with social-emotional health, executive functioning or learning in general, you can imagine how challenging it is for them to find the motivation deep inside, sumon their courage, and push through hardships (both perceived and real). It’s been proven many times over that we typically reference an experience when we felt successful (or a time we witnessed someone else achieving success) to inspire us to work hard and rise above adversity. That feeling of success is a driving force for future task activation as it helps learners see themselves as capable of success. The combination of a learner not personally experiencing this level of success with a biological, social, emotional or cognitive deficit of any kind makes for a perfect storm of negative reinforcement. They immediately lose their ability to pump themselves up to try, try again.
With a better understanding of motivation, you can see how important it is to find out why a learner feels the way that they do so that you can counteract these feelings. Motivation is personal. A learner’s ecosystem must dig deeper into a variety of approaches to kindle the motivation needed to thrive in a learning environment and beyond. For example, sometimes a goal is too large and may seem out of reach; chunking, or breaking it down, into successive approximations (baby steps), can help facilitate progress to the larger goal. On occasion, goals are unrealistic and it helps to step back and reevaluate them. The learner may not be engaged, perhaps because they don’t find meaning or see the purpose in the task. Working with a peer, group, or trained professional can provide a different environment that is more appealing to them. They could also just be flat-out bored. Try sprinkling their interests into the task in a way that helps them better relate to the goal, recall these interests when asked to target the same (or similar) goal in the future. Help them envision their success one step at a time, while validating their anxiety and fatigue. Help them understand that everyone experiences a lack of motivation, but that this challenge can be overcome with the correct strategies and support in place.
How to Motivate Learners
1. Start with one step at a time.
2. Keep the goals small and attainable, use the SMART acronym when developing goals.
3. Incorporate interests to make tasks more engaging, meaningful and inspiring.
4. Initiate coaching and instructional support when/if needed.
With proper goals established in a measured, intentional way, next comes the challenge to maintain motivation through the duration of a task. When we focus on one individual, micro goal at a time, we help equip learners with a new mindset by showing them how rewarding reaching a goal can be. By incorporating their interests, making tasks fun, and creating realistic goals within reach, we not only help a learner get started, but we also encourage them to complete their work. Additionally, verbalizing positive praise, reinforcing the importance of self-affirmations, and commending their effort with internal or external incentives can gently nudge learners towards achieving their goals, small or large.
If a learner follows these steps and does not succeed, tapping into Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset (as explained further in our blog, “Mindset Matters”) can reap invaluable benefits. Most people will not naturally find the motivation needed to propel through a task, and subsequently endure the many pains a formidable task can create. Developing a plan that involves explicit coaching from their support system (the learner’s ecosystem) is key to not only initiating, but sustaining motivation. There are many stories (personal orations and story books) that simulate how mistakes are learning opportunities and are meant to teach us how to approach a situation differently in the future. Training our learners to see challenges as obstacles to overcome, and as opportunities to reach their potential, helps them sustain motivation to work through the goal.
How to Sustain Motivation in Learners
1. Start by praising your learner for what they do well and model the use of self-affirmations.
2. Treat every mistake as a learning opportunity.
3. Validate hardships as obstacles and help learners feel successful by overcoming them.
4. Incorporate layers of support using your learner’s ecosystem.
Motivation is only one piece of the puzzle in unlocking a neurodivergent learner’s overall independence and confidence. Without motivation, learners can feel inadequate, incapable, and insufficient. There is nothing “wrong” with unmotivated individuals; they are either being asked to execute a task that is not manageable, is too boring, or is too lofty. They likely haven’t found a strategy or system that works best to help them initiate, persevere, and sustain their motivation.
As highly effective vaccines rolled out across the U.S. in January of 2021, the year ahead was optimistically labeled as a “return to normal.” Several variants and surges later, the year was anything but normal.
While some schools did return to the classroom, many adopted a hybrid schedule. The stop-and-go nature of these Covid-19 surges created a disruptive whiplash for students, parents, and educators—preventing them from getting into a rhythm and hindering learning. Meanwhile, schools became the epicenter of political polarization on issues around masking and vaccination.
Thankfully, the digital platforms and eLearning tools leveraged by educators and students were once again able to help salvage a disruptive academic year. We continued to see that eLearning, when used effectively, can sometimes lead to better results than in-person learning. One study found that, on average, students can retain 25% to 60% more information when learning online.
But we cannot rest on our laurels in 2022. There are still many challenges our society faces when it comes to education. Success for learners and educators in the new year hinges on whether schools and society can continue to capitalize on technology and evolve it to meet the new needs of learners as we emerge from the ongoing global pandemic—while improving conditions for educators.
Teachers on the Brink: What It Means for Schools, Students, and Society
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were many articles about the impact Covid-19 was having on teachers. Teachers were rightfully getting media attention about how much more difficult their job had gotten: they were now teaching in their homes and apartments, often tending to their own children who were now learning remotely—in addition to their students. Meanwhile, their students were dealing with an entirely unprecedented situation, making their job as educators exponentially more difficult.
Unfortunately, the spotlight on the heroic efforts of our teachers has dimmed in 2022. But the problem has not: a National Education Association survey of 2,690 members, released in June 2021, found that 32 percent of educators said the pandemic led them to plan to leave the profession earlier than anticipated. The state of Florida alone saw 9,000 staff shortages in the past year, up 67 percent. Among teachers 55 and older (a cohort that includes some of the most experienced educators) 34% said they considered leaving or retiring because of COVID-19. And those who are not ready to retire may still view being unemployed as being more preferable than being a teacher given the current circumstances.
The situation is as unmistakable as it is dire—schools will close due to a lack of teachers. At first this will be a day here or there. Then entire weeks or semesters may be cancelled. In fact, it is already happening: in Michigan, eight schools across the state either moved entirely online or even entirely cancelled classes or semesters due to staff shortages.
“We just didn’t have the human resources to be able to test the kids, teach the kids, meet their needs,” reported Bob Cassiday, a superintendent at one of the impacted Michigan districts.
A future where learning in person in a physical classroom environment—at least part of the time—is desirable for our learners for a number of reasons. But unless we do more to incentivize teachers to join or stay in the profession, some districts may never recover from what is being called “the Great Resignation.”
The Unbundling of Education
Due to the changes in our school system, parents—many of whom are working at home and have a front row seat to their kid’s education—have become more involved in the learning process. A range of parents have taken it upon themselves to offset some of the impact of the pandemic on their learners.
As a result, innovative technology and eLearning solutions have risen up to meet the market demand. At Learnfully, we see it paralleling the unbundling of television and streaming services. Several decades ago, there were a few broadcasting stations that dictated what and when we consumed television programming. This gradually ‘unbundled,’ leading to on-demand services like Netflix, and eventually HBO Max, Hulu, Disney+, and the ecosystem we all know so well today. Consumers now have the power to decide when and what they watch.
Now we’re seeing a similar trend in education, one that is only accelerating in 2022. We’re moving away from a one-size-fits all education, and new offerings fill certain niches and specific learning needs. Content is available on-demand in many instances, allowing learners and their parents to self-drive their curriculum. This shift has also empowered educators, especially those with specific expertise that is untapped or underleveraged in their school environment. Now on their own schedule, they can instruct learners who need their services across the country—or even around the world—creating a win-win for the learner and educator alike. At Learnfully, providing this type of empowerment and educational access speaks precisely to our mission.
Parents are getting more involved, often even taking control of their kids’ education. This increased involvement is leading to innovation in personalized learning. The result of this changing dynamic is a more consumer-friendly, widely accessible set of learning solutions—just like we now have with streaming services.
2022: The Year of EF Awareness
Awareness of mental health issues has gained widespread attention as the pandemic has progressed. This has helped pave the way for greater public recognition and awareness of neurodiversity needs. With this greater focus comes a better understanding of the impact that things like social-emotional well-being, the differences in individual learning abilities, and preferred learning style has in academics.
One of the most critical issues that has gained prominence for parents is Executive Functioning (EF). Due to the disruptions of routine, many parents and educators have seen students struggle during the pandemic to perform daily tasks related to EF—like time management, prioritization, organization, effective listening, emotional regulation, planning for future events, and more.
This trend is expected to continue in the year ahead. Many schools are starting to include EF training, such as our EF Simulation, and coursework in their classrooms. Some states may take the step to implement mandatory Pre-K, which has been shown to help develop EF abilities. In addition, parents will continue to seek out solutions that can help their children overcome EF challenges (in and out of school settings). We’ve seen a notable increase in EF conversations and interest from both parents and educators.
With our rapidly evolving educational environment—thanks to emerging technologies, a heightened awareness of neurodiversity, and the teacher crisis—we find ourselves forced to reevaluate our priorities. If anything good can be said about the pandemic, it is that we are rethinking everything: how we treat teachers, how we educate learners, and how we prioritize neurodiversity. And while there are many issues we must address, I’m hopeful that this revaluation period will lead to innovation and improvement in the year(s) ahead.
Math. Social Studies. Science. There’s no shortage of important topics the U.S. education system imparts on our youth.
And yet, there is a set of skills that’s not given enough attention in the classroom: Executive Functioning.
Executive Functioning is the management system of the brain — it refers to how well students pay attention, organize and prioritize, stay focused on tasks through completion, regulate their emotions, and keep track of the things they are doing. While Executive Functioning is starting to gain some deserved attention in the classroom, parents can have a huge impact on the growth of these skills for their children.
In this piece, we’ll look at why Executive Functioning has been historically overlooked in our education system and how parents can help their children learn these skills.
How Did We Get Here? Why Executive Functioning is Overlooked
The U.S. public education system has always been focused on results. Results in the form of grades, standardized test scores, and student performance. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001, schools that did not consistently meet federal standards for proficiencies could face funding cuts. The Every Student Succeeds Act, ushered in by President Obama, largely transferred the accountability of these assessments from the federal to the state level.
Under both laws, however, the incentive for schools is to ensure students are meeting state or federal proficiency standards. That’s why many curriculums — understandably so — have been geared toward achieving certain benchmarks for each grade level.
That works to some degree for certain subjects. There are many subjects where knowledge and competency can be tested and measured. But a student’s Executive Functioning is much harder to determine: how can you say whether a student is able to prioritize projects or budget their time at a satisfactory level? How do you track how they’ve improved their emotional regulation? Or their time budgeting capabilities or ability to pay attention?
Executive Functioning has not been given the commitment of resources as other subjects in our education system. That’s due to extensive, grade-level federal and state assessments, often which are tied to funding. But that’s been exacerbated because Executive Functioning is also much more difficult for schools to evaluate and measure.
Beyond testing and assessment, there’s an additional, simpler reason that explains why Executive Functioning hasn’t been a priority: lack of awareness. The skills have only in recent years become labeled under the umbrella of “Executive Functioning.” For decades, these skills did not have a name in the classroom. And if you don’t have a label for a group of skills, it’s hard to begin to address student shortcomings in a structured, standardized way.
Why Do Some Children Lack Executive Functioning Skills?
If you were asked what you did this morning, you wouldn’t describe how you brushed your teeth, ate breakfast, and left the house on time. Those are things that you do without thinking; things that are a given.
And yet, many children are unable to get out the door on time. They could be easily distracted when they eat breakfast, or forget to brush their teeth, or be late leaving for school.
That’s due to prefrontal lobe development, key to executive decision making, which has the ability to grow until a person is 25 years of age. Simply put, a child’s brain is not fully developed in this area. The best way to accelerate that development and facilitate positive Executive Functioning is to provide consistency. If your child is a visual learner, you may want to write out their morning schedule which they can reference on a daily basis to help them remember tasks and their timing, for example.
An additional way to build strong habits is to leverage positive reinforcement. It may be tempting to do certain tasks for a child such as throwing out their trash or clearing their dishes. Instead, look for the ways that truly motivate your child — perhaps it is a small monetary reward or time to play a video game. Or simply provide positive verbal praise and affirmations. Provide these types of rewards for when they complete these tasks; that way the task will become a habit. Are there going to be times when you are too exhausted and not willing to fight a battle with your child? Of course. Building these habits may never be perfect: but keep the big picture in perspective.
What Can Parents Do About Improving these Skills?
I can already hear you saying: I struggle with building routines on my own and holding myself accountable, how am I going to teach my children these skills? Trust me, I can absolutely relate!
First off — and this is key — give yourself some grace! Know that you will not adhere precisely to the routine every day. But do try to stay consistent: If a child has a chore to take out the trash every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., you may want to create a visual calendar with their name next to it. Then provide positive reinforcement — through whatever motivates them — until that chore becomes a habit. If you struggle with staying organized and completing tasks, try to build routines and reminders that will keep you consistent as well.
Parents should also collaborate with their child’s teachers about issues that they see at home, get input on how the student acts in the classroom, and develop an action plan based on these insights.
Lastly, parents should turn to online resources like Understood.org which has a plethora of helpful advice on how to build healthy habits and cultivate Executive Functioning skills. In addition, tap your network: you’d be surprised how many other fellow parents might be dealing with similar issues with their children — and may have helpful tips, too.
Harnessing and Emphasizing Student Strengths
Just as it’s important to build a routine for your child, that doesn’t mean you should remove their passions which seem less relevant to improving their Executive Functioning. If your child loves playing sports, that’s great — but build that play time into a structure!
Many parents of ADHD children know they may struggle with Executive Functioning. And their children also have many positive traits: their creativity, their spontaneity, and their resilience. Use these traits to help build Executive Functioning: Let children create their own morning schedule. Encourage them to be resilient even when they have difficulty following their routines. Let them be spontaneous and leave them free time, as long as it has parameters and doesn’t impact other routines.
You don’t want to limit your child’s passions, but fit them into a larger structure so they can build these important skills. All the while, make sure to positively reinforce behaviors that should be encouraged.
Up to 90% of students diagnosed with ADHD also struggle with Executive Functioning and it can impact them in some capacity through their academic and professional careers. In the Covid era, there’s never been a better time for parents and schools to prioritize Executive Functioning skills.
After all, while a child may not use long division much past high school, they will absolutely rely on their Executive Functioning skills every day of their life.
E.F. is the CEO of the Brain
Executive function is like the CEO of the brain. It’s in charge of making sure things get done from the planning stages of the job to the final deadline. When learners have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge. EF weaknesses are very common, can stand alone or partner with another formal diagnosis, and can be treated using consistent, strategic and systematic approaches across all environments.
There are several key skills involved in Executive Functioning, your learner may not struggle with all of them to the same degree. Executive skills include:
Metacognitionis the ability to think about thinking. Learners who have trouble with metacognition:
struggles to differentiate what he knows and what he doesn’t know about a topic as he learns
does not study for assessments, complete challenging assignments, or comprehend new learning material easily
Impulse Controlis the ability to stop and think before acting. Learners who have trouble with impulse control:
may blurt things out
do unsafe things without thinking it through
are likely to rush through homework without checking it
may quit a chore halfway through to go hang out with friends
Emotional Controlis the ability to manage her feelings by focusing on the end result or goal. Emotional control and impulse control are closely related. Learners who struggle with emotional control:
often have trouble accepting negative feedback
may overreact to little injustices
may struggle to finish a task when something upsets them
Flexibility is the ability to roll with the punches and come up with new approaches when a plan fails. Learners who are inflexible:
think in very concrete ways
don’t see other options or solutions
find it difficult to change course
may get panicky and frustrated when they’re asked to do so
Working Memory is the ability to hold information in her mind and use it to complete a task. Learners who have weak working memory skills:
have trouble with multi-step tasks
have a hard time remembering directions, taking notes or understanding something you’ve just explained to them
frequently may say, “I forgot what I was going to say.”
Self-Monitoring is the ability to keep track of and evaluate her performance on regular tasks.
Learners who have trouble self-monitoring:
can’t tell if their strategies are working
may not even realize they have strategies
often don’t know how to check their work
Planning and Prioritizing is the ability to come up with the steps needed to reach a goal and to decide their order of importance. Learners with weak planning and prioritizing skills:
may not know how to start planning a project
may be easily overwhelmed trying to break tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks
may have trouble seeing the main idea
Task Initiation is the ability to get started on something. Learners who struggle with initiation:
often have issues with planning and prioritizing too. Without having a plan for a task, it’s hard to know how to start.
can come across as lazy or as simply procrastinating
often they’re just so overwhelmed they freeze and do nothing
Organization is the ability to keep track of information and things. Learners with organizational issues:
are constantly losing or misplacing things
can’t find a way to get organized even when there are negative consequences to being disorganized
Can Executive Functioning skills be improved?
Absolutely! By explicitly teaching and practicing EF skills, we ensure that all learners have the strong foundation they need to be successful in and outside of the classroom. The idea is that we can train our brains to improve basic skills like organization and self-control. Kids and young adults can also learn valuable compensatory strategies to help them through their struggles with staying organized, paying attention, and persevering through challenges. Not only does this give learners immediate short-term benefits, but gives support in the long-term as well. Below are some simple, but effective, strategies in teaching and practicing executive functioning skills:
Changes in environment- noise level, visual reminders, eating
Changes in interactions- specific direction, encouragement, immediate feedback
Teaching specific skills- goals, coaching, plan-do-review (PDR)
Classroom wide interventions- routines, small groups
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