By Junjing (Janet) Fan, Occupational Therapist, with Ronni Rowland, Writer

Children may appear unmotivated at school for a wide range of reasons… to gain attention, to avoid tasks, to vent frustration and anger, to win control and power, and more.

“It is most important to understand why children engage in a certain behavior,” says Janet Fan, occupational therapist with ELG. “Knowing why a behavior occurs – both positive and negative – is essential to understanding how to effectively motivate students.”

Here are three surprising reasons why your child isn’t motivated at school.

1. Children’s behaviors are misunderstood.

Children may outwardly show the same behavior – speaking out in class, tantrums, avoiding a certain task – but the reason underlying it may vary greatly from child to child.

“It’s important to take the time to assess why a child is behaving in a certain way,” explains Janet. “We need to define the behavior, its frequency and its perceived purpose in all the environments it occurs.” Then, we’ll know how to properly manage negative behaviors and motivate positive behaviors.

2. Children may not know what to do.

Children are more motivated when they believe they can succeed. One way to foster success is using “social stories,” which show a visual sequence of steps to teach children socially acceptable behaviors in a certain situation or setting. Social stories are often written as a list, accompanied by images to aid children’s comprehension and serve as a visual prompt of what to do.

Here’s an example of a social story about “Sitting Still.”

Sometimes we have mat time at school. My teacher might say ‘sit still’.

Sitting still means:

  • I will sit with my legs crossed.
  • I will try and keep my hands on my lap.
  • I will try not to touch other children.
  • Everyone is happy when I sit still at mat time.

3. Children may “shut down” due to anxiety and worry about negative consequences.

Wisely use behavioral motivators. “If and then” threats (negatively phrased) can increase anxiety to such a level that a teacher or parent can actually elicit the opposite outcome. The child becomes completely unable to concentrate on what he should do, focusing instead on what he will lose.

For example, consider this negatively phrased statement: “If you don’t finish this task, you won’t be able to participate in playtime.” Try something like this instead: “When you finish this task, you can enjoy 10 minutes of free time.”

Know me. Motivate me.

Children will be more motivated in a learning environment that understands and supports them as individuals. “Programs that involve changes in our own behavior, in the activities we offer, in the environments we provide, are much more successful than programs that just expect the students to change,” says Janet.