Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Reaching the Highly Unmotivated

by Jill Schafhauser

Flower 1Many of us are familiar with social media memes about how the students who need the most love show up in our classrooms in highly unlovable ways. We read that meme and internally agree.  We think of how we’ve loved students through tough times. In times of greatest honesty, we might also agree that there have been students we just didn’t reach. Perhaps we couldn’t find motivation for that student.  Maybe the student moved to another school before we reached him or her. Regardless, those situations nag at our hearts a bit.  We feel unsettled when we aren’t able to reach a highly unmotivated student.

I do a lot of consultation in my job. More often than not, I’m asked to weigh-in on students who display maladaptive behaviors. I enjoy working with teams of educators to dig deep and figure out how to help a student reach his or her goals.  In my experience educators are willing to do nearly anything to see children succeed. Below are a few of the tools and strategies I use as we attempt to find just the right fit for motivating individual students.

Using a Reinforcement Survey

A common pitfall of well-intended educators is assuming we know what students are motivated by. A simple reinforcement survey helps choose appropriate extrinsic reinforcers.  More information and an example can be found here. If you decide to use this type of survey, it’s important to customize. Most students will not generalize. Rather than asking if the student likes candy, use the student’s favorite brand of candy as the prompt.

Understanding Students’ Impressions of School

While extrinsic motivation is sometimes helpful, it is far more important to understand a student’s overall impression of school.  An example can be found here. The process of interviewing is just as important as the answers you get.  For example, I recently interviewed a student who gave me one or two-word answers and seemed to resist my efforts at rapport building. However, when it was time to walk back to class, he asked me to walk along.  He just wanted a little more time with an adult. I was shocked. His relationship building looks different than most. That was very helpful information for his teacher. Remember, while you may feel a student’s perception isn’t terribly accurate, it is still their perception and information we should learn from. Consider that information a peek into how your student perceives his world.

Using a Motivation Scale

For those students who are displaying a specific maladaptive behavior, you might consider a more direct measure like a motivation scale (found here). There are a variety of instruments that can be used to help you determine the function of a student’s behavior. A simple Google search will provide numerous options. Best practice is for several team members to complete the survey. Once you have results, the team should work to determine how to teach the student to get his or her needs met in a more appropriate manner. For example, if the student scores highest in the escape demands category it will be important to consider whether the student is able to reasonably meet demands. Maybe the student needs some accommodations. Perhaps the work is too visually overwhelming. Could the student require more movement breaks before lengthy work demands? Is there an academic deficit that the team is unaware of? Can the student see and hear properly? Remember our job as educators is not only to teach an academic task, we are also teaching students how to be the people the Master Teacher called them to be. Sometimes that means explicitly teaching replacement behavior as well as lovingly finding the proper motivators.

The samples I’ve included here are truly just samples. Please develop your own tools that best fit your students and teaching style. The big picture is to gain specific information about our students who are most in need and to use that knowledge to provide better programming. Use the information you’ve gathered to inform your team and make collective decisions about how to better motivate your student. Once you’ve found the magic sauce, there is truly nothing more gratifying than watching that student soar.

Further Reading

You can find the examples linked in the post here: 

What’s Your Perspective

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • What is your experience with addressing maladaptive behavior?
  • Do you have a success story you love to tell?
  • If you would like specific information about how to use the results from some of these tools, please feel free to comment or contact me for more guidance.

Post Author


Jill Schafhauser is the Assistant Director of Special Education in a school district near Indianapolis, Indiana in the United States. Jill has been loving life in the world of special education for over twenty years. She also has two handsome sons and an awesome husband. The Schafhausers serve the Master Teacher as a team, trying to be a bit more like Him daily.

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

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This entry was posted on December 18, 2019 by in forgiveness, Jill Schafhauser, parables.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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