Searching for the Right Key: Unlocking the Doors to Motivation

By: Carol J. Fuhler

If one could briefly walk in someone else’s shoes or see through someone else’s eyes, would one choose an adolescent with learning disabilities (LD)? Perhaps not, because these particular adolescents are in a different position. Their bodies are maturing, their emotions are changing, academic demands are increasing, and they are beginning to contemplate exciting but possibly frightening future vocations. In addition, these young adults do not possess the academic expertise that would enable them to maintain the same pace toward independence as their peers. Most are perceptive enough to detect the widening gap, however. This group of learners has an inordinately high need for social reinforcement, and sometimes seek it in inappropriate ways. They frequently exhibit anxiety in mastery situations, fear failure at nearly every bend of the road, and have a low expectancy for success based on past performances (Harter, 1978). While coping with a myriad of physical and emotional fluctuations, these students are expected to be motivated learners. It is easy to see why academic motivation might not be one of their areas of strength. Is there a key educational approach that will foster motivation in adolescents with learning disabilities?

Cohen and Beattie (1984) suggested that unique teaching strategies may be required to prevent (or decrease already existing) frustration, anger, and lack of motivation in the student with LD. Educators who strive to teach this population to be independent, intrinsically motivated learners might integrate the following list of practical suggestions into classroom procedures.

  1. Encourage Choices
  2. Provide alternative ways for students to complete assignments or ask students for innovative ways to meet requirements. The element of choice gives students less opportunity to balk at adult-imposed requirements and lets them feel more in control of their learning. If spelling words need review, for example, give the students an option of writing a creative paragraph with them (Adam, 1990; Hansen, 1987).

    Let students complete math assignments in matched ability pairs. Once the work is done, students hand in their best effort, one assignment with both names attached. Some experience a motivational boost resulting from the successful completion of their work. A bonus is that content is mastered more thoroughly as the students work through and discuss problems together. Change the pairings periodically. Not only will students learn math, they will also master the art of human relations (Johnson & Johnson, 1985; Slavin, 1987).

  3. Advocate Ownership
  4. Children can be asked to assess their own progress from time to time, for they can be most critical in their judgments. Ask students to grade themselves at midterm and semester’s end, sharing both the grade and their rationale with the teacher. Their insights and honesty can be counted upon (Goodman, Goodman & Hood, 1989). Following completion of a group project, request both individual and collective grades based upon the group’s evaluation of members’ contributions.

  5. Strive for Relevance
  6. Topics to be studied should be of interest to students and arouse their curiosity (Goodman et al. , 1989; McCombs, 1984). The content should be related to students’ own experiences and tied to their lives in a meaningful fashion whenever possible. Students are liable to take a greater interest in knowledge that they view as being pertinent to them (Bruner, 1960). Glasser (in Gough , 1987) stated that at least half of today’s students are making little or no effort to learn because they don’t think schools are meeting their needs.

    Move beyond the textbook in reading, letting students choose a novel or nonfiction book that appeals to them, subject to teacher approval. Children will read what they are interested in (Atwell, 1987; Hansen, 1987; Newman, 1985). Offer several enticing titles of paperbacks to students based on their own interests. Read a lively excerpt aloud or talk about books enthusiastically in an effort to match reading ability, interest, and reader. These efforts are bound to perk up flagging motivation. Be certain that suggested titles have true-to-life characters with whom young readers can relate (Schlager, 1978). The connection formed between realistic characters and real readers ensures that the book will be finished rather than relegated to the ranks of never-completed books. The Shadow Club (Shusterman, 1988), Stonewords (Conrad, 1990), or A View From the Cherry Tree (Roberts. 1975) might serve as motivators.

    When writing assignments are given, teachers can guide writers into areas in which they may be “experts” and let them shine. Don’t forget the popular Writer’s Workshop, which encourages students to use their peers for sounding boards as they write.

  7. Give Positive and Negative Feedback
  8. Don’t just red-ink an answer that is wrong: Explain why an answer is incorrect. Focus on learners’ actions in a constructive way, providing information to students about their accomplishments. Remember that vulnerable adolescent ego. Children do enough self-disparaging when they fail. Adolescents don’t need educators telling them (or even implying) that they are not good enough (Deci & Chandler, 1986; Good & Brophy, 1984).

  9. Set Goals
  10. Set high, but manageable, expectations and provide opportunities for students to stretch and tone their minds (Good & Brophy, 1984). Small groups working cooperatively offer a safe and supportive arena for tentative “limbering up” exercises as students practice problem solving together. Students who are urged on by their peers tend to be more motivated than students who are in competition with each other. There seems to be more strength in a group celebration of success than in more individual celebrations (Johnson & Johnson, 1985).

    Teach adolescents to set goals that are current, specific, and moderately challenging. Show the students through modeling that both amount and quality of effort is essential for high caliber learning. Maintain student portfolios using manila folders, dating work as it is completed. This enables student and teacher to compare progress toward an established goal by looking at previous work rather than by promoting competition by comparisons with peers (Brophy, 1987; Goodman et al. , 1989; Valencia, 1990).

    Practical Suggestions for Fostering Motivation

    • Encourage choices
    • Advocate ownership
    • Strive for relevance
    • Give positive and negative feedback
    • Set high, but manageable, expectations
    • Offer rewards – consumables, praise, or a handshake
    • Push students’ boundaries
    • Encourage activity and interaction
    • Model: Share your enthusiasm for books
    • Encourage students to explore the world outside the classroom
    • Offer Rewards

    For good improved performance or for a student’s “personal best,” offer rewards. Consumables, sincere teacher praise, a warm handshake, a small, personally lettered certificate of success, or a thank you note from the teacher can work wonders. Even the typical bulletin board display of noteworthy work, coupled with positive peer interaction, is an appropriate type of reward. Everyone deserves a pat on the back once in a while. The gesture conveys the message that the child’s efforts are genuinely appreciated. The usual effect is to spur one on to greater endeavours.

  11. Push Their Boundaries
  12. Strive for higher level thinking skills by having learners apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate materials as they relate them to their prior knowledge and experience (Artwell, 1987; Brophy, 1987; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development , 1989). The key here is to ask the students why and expect coherent responses. Teach the steps to follow in developing these skills by showing how one would tackle this type of answer. Provide plenty of opportunities to practice thinking skills, coaching students along the way.

  13. Encourage Activity and Interaction
  14. Lecture and teacher chalk-and-talk can be deadly in large doses. Relinquish a little control. Don’t, as Glasser (in Gough, 1987) suggests, put yourself in the role of a worker “who must sand. polish, and paint students into educated ‘objects'” (p659). Step out of the role of manager, move into the mode of facilitator, and put the responsibility for learning back on the shoulders of the students. Allow for activity, vary group size, move the desks, and change peer interaction in the classroom to add variety to the daily routine. It is worth noting that the quietest classroom is not always the most productive (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989).

  15. Model, Model, Model
  16. Students scrutinize their teachers carefully. Share your interest and enthusiasm for books, national events, or subjects you teach. Discuss a current news event and value student responses. Always make time to read aloud to adolescents in all content areas; it is an excellent way to expand students’ horizons and show them the fascinating worlds within the covers of books (Atwell, 1987; Hansen, 1987; Trelease, 1985). The levity of laughter can be a motivator, as it lifts one’s spirits and moves learners forward with a lighter step. Chuckle together through poetry, using a Light in the Attic (Silverstein, 1981), New Kid on the Block (Prelutzsky, 1984), or one of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (1982). Share the wily wolf’s version of what really happened to the three little pigs in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Schieszka, 1989). Everyone will be better for the interlude.

  17. Encourage Students to Explore the World Outside of the Classroom
  18. Encourage students to build strengths in athletics, band, chorus, drama club, art, and other activities that interest them and afford them a chance to excel. Support efforts to write an article for the school newspaper or to take candid photos for the yearbook. Success in these areas promotes self-acceptance, encourages intrinsic motivation, and builds a sense of competence and self-esteem. Glasser (in Gough, 1987) explains: “All of our lives we search for ways to satisfy our needs for love, belonging, caring, sharing and cooperation. If a student feels no sense of belonging in school, no sense of belonging involved in caring and concern, that child will pay little attention to academic needs.” (p.647)

Children’s Books: A Selected List

  • Conrad, P. (1990). Stonewords , New York : Harper & Row
  • Dahl, R. (1982). Revolting Rhymes , New York : Atheneum

Prelutzsky, J. (1984).

  • New Kid on the Block , New York : Greenwillow
    Roberts, W.D. (1975).
  • View From The Cherry Tree , New York : Atheneum
    Schieszka, J. (1989).
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs , New York : Viking-Penguin
    Shusterman, N. (1988).
  • The Shadow Club , Boston : Little, Brown & Co.
    Silverstein, S. (1981).
  • A Light in the Attic , New York : Harper

Go with that knowledge and help the hesitant adolescent with learning disabilities to join in an activity that can meet those needs for acceptance and friendship. The glow from success on the athletic field or a solo in the band concert is carried back into the classroom the following day.


In colonial American classrooms, fear of the birch rod was motivator, albeit a negative one. Fortunately, ideas regarding ways to encourage students to learn have progressed over the years. Motivating children to learn is not a new issue; it has long been on the minds of classroom teachers. The up-to-date, positive strategies discussed in the previous section have much to offer the disinclined adolescent with learning disabilities in both the mainstreamed classroom and the resource room. As is so often the case, all of the keys must be tried before there is a fit. Strategies can be mixed and matched to meet individual needs in an effort to bolster intrinsic motivation, a characteristic frequently lacking in this particular population.

As emphasis shifts from the commonly employed and often ineffective extrinsic reinforcement, properly guided learners will gradually assume responsibility for their own behaviors. They will be less likely to blame failures on someone else, a very common occurrence among children with learning difficulties. Accomplishing realistic goals, set within personal limits, will facilitate a newfound pride in personal academic accomplishments. As this complex motivation issue is tackled for each student, intersperse a chuckle or two, offer a supportive hand, and let the improvement begin!

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