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.

For more on goal-oriented behaviors, see Goal Setting for Learners – at Home and at School.

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.

Igniting Motivation 

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.

Sustaining Motivation

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.

Conclusion

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.

This is part one of our series on learned helplessness. You can read part two here and part three here.

Finding the right balance between helping your child and hindering their growth is a fine line that we always seem to be balancing as caregivers and educators. However, one thing we often don’t consider is that if we do too much for them we could be robbing them of learning necessary life or executive function skills. Oftentimes, if we allow them to struggle we feel guilt, frustration or even impatience. But if we over-function for our children, this prevents them from getting the essential practice that it takes to develop control over their outcomes and in their lives. Over time this can lead to what psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. You can read  all about learned helplessness (and strategies to overcome it at home and at school) in this three-part blog series!

Learned helplessness ‘exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events’ (Seligman, 1975).

Learned Helplessness Defined

In Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death, Martin Seligman described learned helplessness as something that “exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events”

At home when you ask your child to do something, is their first response or attitude, “I can’t do it”? Do you find yourself cleaning up after them because it is easier than arguing? Children who have developed learned helplessness might ask you to put their coat on or tie their shoes even though they know how. They might not take responsibility for remembering their homework, but expect you to drop everything and bring it to the school. Michelle Smith Lank, of Kids World Learning Center in Georgia, cautions us that, “Parents are teaching children their ability to not get things done and robbing them of gaining the skills and practice necessary to develop self-competence. After enough time, children don’t realize their true ability and potential. They begin to lack the tools needed to accomplish the tasks we are asking them to do.”At school, learned helplessness can show up through lack of self-confidence, poor problem-solving skills, attention issues, and feelings of hopelessness. For example, your student has a quiz on Friday so you offer to help them study the evening before. The first thing out of their mouth is, “I’m going to fail anyway, so why should I waste my time studying?” They feel defeated before they have even started. They do not see that any input on their part will change the outcome of their success. Another behavior is the waiting game. This is when you or the teacher is helping your student with their work and they stay silent until someone gives them the next step or the answer. Does your child wait for someone to point to a hint or give them the answer out of pity or impatience?

Learned helplessness can show up through lack of self-confidence, poor problem-solving skills, attention issues, and feelings of hopelessness.

 Characteristics of Learned Helplessness

Some characteristics of learned helplessness, as identified by numberworksnwords.com, are:        

  1. Low motivation to learn, and diminished aspirations to succeed in school.
  2. Low outcome expectations; that is, they believe that, no matter what they do in school, the outcome will always be negative (e.g. bad grades). In addition, they believe that they are powerless to prevent or overcome a negative outcome.
  3. Lack of perceived control over their own behavior and the environmental events; one’s own actions cannot lead to success.
  4. Lack of confidence in their skills and abilities (low self-efficacy expectations). These children believe that their school difficulties are caused by their own lack of ability and low intelligence, even when they have adequate ability and normal intelligence. They are convinced that they are unable to perform the required actions to achieve a positive outcome.
  5. They underestimate their performance when they do well in school, attributing success to luck or chance, e.g., “I was lucky that this test was easy.”
  6. They generalize from one failure situation or experience to other situations where control is possible. Because they expect failure all the time, regardless of their real skills and abilities, they underperform all the time.
  7. They focus on what they cannot do, rather than focusing on their strengths and skills.
  8. Because they feel incapable of implementing the necessary courses of action, they develop passivity and their school performance deteriorates.

Conclusion

It is never too late to develop skills to help educate and motivate our children to become the best versions of themselves that they can be—and improve ourselves in the process! In our next two blogs we will explore some of the strategies families can practice at home, and teachers can implement at school, to prevent and overcome learned helplessness.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website