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October 7, 2015 / 24 Tishri, 5776
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Motivating The Frustrated Learner


“It’s not my job,” she said.

Many years ago, while training a new teacher, I discussed the idea of motivating students. She interrupted me by saying, “Mrs. Schonfeld, I believe that my job as a teacher is to deliver the information to the students. I will teach them phonics, how to spell, and how to add and subtract. If they want to learn, they will pay attention and they will learn. If they aren’t interested in learning, they can sit quietly or stare at the window. That’s not my job.”

“Your job is to give information,” I said, “but there are a lot of reasons why children don’t pay attention. It isn’t always about whether they ‘want’ to. Maybe they are afraid of failure, maybe they have learning disorders. As a teacher, you can motivate and inspire them to achieve.”

“It’s not my job. I’m there to teach. Not to cheerlead,” she told me.

While I understood this young woman’s frustration with this added component to her job, in reality, there are many reasons why children might seem to not want to learn. As teachers and parents, it is our job to figure out how to motivate them towards excellence.

Motivation Myths

It’s impossible to motivate him! The child who sleeps in class or takes out other homework is not unmotivated to learn. Rather, he is motivated to sleep or take out homework. Everyone is motivated in some way – all of our actions stem from some sort of motivation. Therefore, as parents or teachers, we have to get to the heart of that action and devise a strategy to steer the motivation in our direction.

Competition motivates. Many educators believe that competition motivates children to do their best. However, research has shown that people only participate in competitions that they believe they have a chance of winning. In reality, the best motivating competition is competition with ourselves. Helping students recognize their potential and then surpass it, is the best way to ensure success.

He’s motivated one day and unmotivated the next. Think about motivation for school as a relationship between a parent and a child. You love your child but acknowledge that some days are more difficult than others. Therefore, accept the days that are not as great and brainstorm ideas to move forward.

Punishment is great motivation. Punishment is only effective during the time that the punishment exists. If there is no longer a punishment, the motivation vanishes. Therefore, punishment is not a long-term solution. Instead, children need to find their own inspiration.

Learned Helplessness

Be careful, though, because not all seemingly unmotivated children are attempting to control their surroundings; there are some children who appear to be unmotivated but in reality are suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability.

Many times, children with learning disabilities struggle and receive little positive feedback from their teachers and parents. Sometimes they are misunderstood and labeled as “lazy,” “slow,” or “unmotivated” and end up feeling shame and frustration.

Research at the University of Iowa and UCLA indicates that as many as 70% of children with LD suffer from poor self-esteem. Dr. Marshall Raskind, an expert in the field of learning disabilities, says, “Over time, children with LD may just stop trying, entering a state of ‘learned helplessness’ where they see little connection between their efforts and ultimate outcomes. ‘Why bother?’ they may ask, ‘No matter how hard I try, I always end up failing.'”

Before I address how to combat these negative feelings, it is important to understand just what self-esteem is. People with self-esteem have a strong sense of their own worth, which leads them to stand up for themselves when others attempt to put them down. Those with strong self-esteem also tend to express their feelings freely, enabling them to establish long lasting friendships.

Therefore, when you ask if there is a connection between your son’s learning disability and his social skills, the answer is probably “yes.” Other people’s reactions to your son’s learning disability might have caused him to feel badly about his self-worth. This in turn could make him hesitant to stand up for himself (a target for bullies) and also cautious when it comes to opening up to other people (an inability to maintain long-term friendships).

What can you do to help your son gain self-esteem and also make friends? The first thing you can do is help him understand that his learning disability does not make him stupid or slow. Tell him about Albert Einstein’s struggles in grade school and Beethoven’s difficulties with hearing loss. They turned their weaknesses into strengths.

Then, you can look for his strengths. Is he really creative? Athletic? Generous? Whatever his strength is, make the most of it. Sign him up for an after school activity that he will excel in. This will not only help him gain confidence, it will also introduce him to children his own age who share his passion. This way, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone – he will gain self-esteem, which will lead to motivation.

Perhaps the most important idea that I can leave parents with is that no child is truly unmotivated. It’s simply a matter of decoding the child’s behavior and figuring out the best way to help him see his true potential.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.

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