Motivating Students from Poverty

This week I was working with teacher leaders from a GA district who were studying with instructional coaches and administrators from their buildings. We examined teacher leaders’ roles in facilitating PLCs, building team cultures, and promoting a culture of coaching. One of the areas that emerged from our conversations was how to assist teachers in responding to students the teachers had labeled as unmotivated.

I shared some activities I have conducted with teachers to examine ways to approach understanding student motivation.

Ask teachers to list three or four things they ENJOY doing. Items don’t need to be connected to school but okay if they are. List might include things like reading, camping, gardening, dancing etc. (I suggest that if there is anything on the list they’d be uncomfortable sharing, they go further down the list. :)) Then list three or four things they would like to AVOID doing. List might include grading papers, housework, disciplining students, grocery shopping, etc.

In groups I ask that the teachers share the items on their lists and identify common reasons for liking the ENJOY list and wanting to AVOID the other list. Here is a common analysis of responses that I can usually pull from a group:

slide - Enjoy-AvoidClick slide to enlarge.

When doing the activities on the enjoy list we are often choosing to take part in something where we will experience a reward or finished product. We usually have skill in the area and therefore predict success or we are self- evaluating our performance and are comfortable with the result. (Singing in the shower)

On the avoid list are items we “have to do”. Sometimes we lack skill in this area and predict failure. Or the item is never-ending… no finished product. (Think laundry.) We are often evaluated by others which can add stress.

When teachers are comfortable with the list, I then ask, ”Which list looks most like a student’s day in school?” Can you see the reasons some students would enjoy school and others not? How can we increase the amount of “ENJOYS”?

To increase enjoys, I suggest considering William Glasser’s work in Choice Theory;

Choice theory states that:

 *all we do is behave,

*that almost all behavior is chosen, and

*that we are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun.

Considering how to increase belonging, power, freedom, and fun creates a starting point for teacher brainstorming and experimentation. Daniel Pink’s focus on increasing autonomy, purposefulness, and mastery also aligns well.

The teacher leaders examined Eric Jenson’s article from Educational Leadership (May 2013) How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement. After stressing the importance of teachers knowing, respecting, and connecting with their students, Jensen identified seven differences existing between students from low income and middle class. He included “what we can do”.

Difference #1– Health and Nutrition— physical activity can counter some issues associate with poor nutrition and can build health. PE and recess are important.

Difference #2- Limited Vocabulary – building vocabulary must be a daily classroom ritual.

Difference #3- Effort– sell high goals and convince kids of their chances to attain them. Provide daily feedback to reinforce that effort matters.

Difference #4- Hope and Growth Mindset.-use optimistic and encouraging feedback… You can do this!

Difference #5-Cognition-teach students how to organize, study, take notes, and prioritize. Teach problem solving skills.

Difference #6-Relationships-the more teachers care the better the foundation for interventions.

Difference #7 Distress– Give students more control over their lives at school and encourage responsibility and leadership with choices, projects, and teamwork.

I believe leaders working with these activities can tap teacher autonomy, mastery and purposefulness. 

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2 Responses to “ Motivating Students from Poverty ”

  1. Willie Nelson Says:

    Awesome topic today, Steve! I use William Glasser’s philosophy when I lead. I have started to read more of Daniel Pink’s work! This will be a great foundation activity and build upon throughout the school year!!

  2. Bridgette Says:

    Thanks, Steve. Short, sweet, and to the point. Easy read. Profoundly overlooked topic.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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