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.

And they’re off! Most of our children have returned to the classroom after much anticipation and are now faced with socializing with (some new, some familiar) peers without much practice for the past 12 to 18 months. We thought it only right to provide you, caregivers and educators, with some quick tips and reminders as to how to reshape social skills, collaborative play, and social problem-solving in your learners after a potential hiatus!

Review: Social Emotional Learning

First, let’s review the five key SEL components of social-emotional learning that the majority of educational environments do a brilliant job of addressing all school year long. 

Self Awareness–to consider your own thoughts and emotions, and understand how they impact others.

Self Management–the ability to regulate and control your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Responsible Decision Making–to consider consequences, know capabilities and seek help as needed.

Relationship Skills–ability to make positive connections and sustain healthy relationships.

Social Awareness–ability to empathize, take perspective, understand the impact on others and act accordingly.

Even before the pandemic, SEL was a major focal point in classrooms nationwide. Learners require repetition and constant review, especially at the beginning of the school year, so it makes sense to start here, lay the foundation. Then, tap into the next resources as mediums to develop each of these skills in your learners. 

Books as Activators

Stories and narratives are the perfect tools for modeling social norms as they are not only engaging, dynamic, and colorful, but they also take the pressure off of learners. This way, you can spark a discussion through these ideal conversation starters that, then, leads learners to reflect and to make connections. For learners who need more explicit, direct modeling in socialization, Carol Gray’s Social Stories are phenomenal tools for accomplishing this goal! By definition,  “Social Stories are a social learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages.” Gray has created such brilliant, simplistic stories for learners (not solely for those on the Autism Spectrum) who benefit from step-by-step directions as to how to initiate conversation, ask for help, and so forth. Our learners who are feeling overwhelmed with socializing now or at any point, have books to guide them through these challenging situations. 

Role Playing 

Incorporating movement and acting adds an element of fun that some learners are more likely to retain and hold onto, so why not act it out? PBS Conflict Resolution includes a few engaging methods for role-playing a variety of social obstacles. Modeling a diversity of scenarios and responsible solutions to each problem will help children feel more equipped to handle obstacles on their own in the future. When learners, then, encounter a similar scenario that they have already acted out, they will be able to tap into their memory as a resource and feel more comfortable and, thus, confident to embrace the challenge as an opportunity to grow. When in doubt, we can always teach our kids to ask for help. Role-playing when, why, and how to seek support is of great benefit!

Play Dates are Back!

What is a playdate? Some of us are asking just that, it has been so long since some of our children have enjoyed time with their friends outside of school or while being socially distanced. Taking the proper safety precautions is still necessary, of course, but hosting playdates in a secure way allows you to facilitate and model social problem solving and collaboration. Be prepared for your children to feel a bit lost and unsure as to what to do since they have been without this level of social stimulation for quite some time. Inspire creativity, ignite imagination, orchestrate games – providing several options for engagement can ease kids into play and relieve some of the stress that they might feel having to generate ideas on their own. Check out USA Today’s article, “6 ways to create fun, healthy playdates for kids during the pandemic” for more guidance.

At the end of the day, children learn a lot about themselves through play and social interaction. As trusted adults in their lives, it is our responsibility to support them socially and by allowing them access to tools such as books, role-playing activities, and fun-filled playdates, we are setting them up for success socially and emotionally!

Join us for the third annual SEL Day coming up on March 11, 2022!  SEL Day promotes Social-Emotional Learning, a proven method for teaching kids the emotional life skills that every parent wants for their children to excel in school, work, relationships, and life. Find out more about how you can participate here!

As schools look to return fully in person next year there will be many uncertainties educators will face. While, there are hundreds of questions going through the minds of teachers, there are even more going through the minds of parents as they have had to navigate the ill prepared education system over the last 14 months.  There are numerous resources to measure and prescribe curriculum to meet the academic needs of students as they return to the classroom. However, the social and emotional requirements of students have changed while the resources and training necessary have not caught up to the needs of our families, teachers and students. As parents advocate for their students, it is imperative that they have awareness of the social emotional and Executive Functioning needs of their students.  Creating informed relationships and partnerships with the educators, tutors, counselors and any other support your child is fortunate to have in their family will ensure a happy, healthy student with a bright future.

How did you become interested in/passionate about SEL growth? 

My favorite Maya Angelou quote has always been: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Reading this quote as a teacher stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink everything I was doing in my classroom.  As an educator in an inner-city school, I felt the pressure to ensure my students were achieving at academic levels of their uptown peers.  I didn’t want them to continue in the cycle of poverty they had come from, so I felt a personal responsibility for their future.  However, after years of district prescribed, skills-based teaching and testing, I knew there was something missing.  No one had ever asked these students what they wanted, what they needed and what they thought.  This was my first step into the realization that relationships are as important (if not more) than the lessons in any text book.  This was where my passion for social emotional learning (SEL) began.

As a parent of three sons who struggled with learning disabilities, I knew the emotional hardships learning could take on a student and their family. Schools would focus on their reading and math skills, which often left them feeling disconnected and defeated.  I knew that they learned differently and struggled constantly, but my greatest concern was that they were also not learning skills on how to be successful in life.  Although the boys were well behaved, teachers were always frustrated and impatient with them because teaching them was so difficult.  One by one they lost confidence in themselves and began to show signs of struggle in their social emotional skills and overall mental health.

What is Social-Emotional Learning and why is it important? 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning (SEL) as, “The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”  They remind us that SEL is an integral part of education and human development. These systems of emotional intelligence help us navigate our self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship building skills, which lead us to responsible decision making.

How do learners present when they are facing SEL challenges?

Students who struggle with gaps in their SEL might be: insensitive to other’s feelings, judgmental of others, have a hard time accepting criticism, argumentative, blame others, have emotional outbursts, exhibit bullying behavior, struggle making friends, overreact, have poor coping skills, or feel the need to always be right.

What role does Executive Functioning play in SEL? 

Along with their learning difficulties came large gaps in their Executive Functioning (EF) skills.  These are areas of learning such as adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization, which help us to navigate the world as we focus our attention, remember instructions, multitask, set and achieve goals and control impulses.  The EF skills combined with SEL, support student success because when students have self-awareness and self-management skills they have stronger social awareness which leads to successful relationship building.

With a lack of EF skills and/or low social emotional skills there are many issues that could arise, such as socially inappropriate behavior, trouble controlling emotions or impulses, easily distracted or hard time paying attention.

For my own sons they withdrew, struggled with attention, became depressed and one even ended up with school-based anxiety.  Although this is a worse case scenario, when the needs of students SEL and EF are not met, this can become the outcome.  This is why in my own classroom, with the school I led as a principal and in my own home I have become an advocate for programs that support the whole child.

What programs or curriculum have you utilized to address said struggles?  

Many schools, including the ones I have worked in have successfully used curriculum, training and ongoing professional development from Second Step, Soul Shoppe and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  I have found these to be powerful tools if they are used and monitored to fidelity. The schools that educate parents, teachers, school staff and students find the most success with these programs.  The entire culture of a school can be positively changed with a commitment to social emotional learning as families, teachers and students feel safer and are happier. These types of programs bring awareness to struggling students and provide resources to teachers, families and students, so that stories like my sons’ don’t have to happen to others.

Using what I had learned about SEL and EF I was able to help my boys become successful young men who are passionate in their careers, thrive emotionally, and build healthy relationships.  They went from students who lacked confidence and deemed themselves as, “dumb,” to adults who run their own business, manage others and are compassionate beyond their years.

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