Reaching the “Unmotivated” Learner

Since 1985, North Coast Education Services has been providing academic support to students of all ages.  We frequently hear from parents and teachers that their students are “unmotivated” and simply “do not want to learn”.

As “The Education Problem Solvers”, it is our job to motivate these supposedly “unmotivated” learners.  By engaging them in discussions and aligning their learning to their own interests, we find that these students are anything but unmotivated.

Today, we present to you an article written by our executive director, Carole Richards.

Reaching the “Unmotivated” Learner

By Carole Richards
Written on May 1, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I was scheduled to meet with a 13 year-old seventh grader that was described by his teachers as follows:  “He avoids schoolwork whenever possible.”  “He does not consistently do math homework and often uses excuses like ‘lost it’ or ‘left it at home’.”  “He has a very poor attitude toward school work and studying.”  “He’s not motivated.”

Frequently I consult with students that are described as “unmotivated” by their teachers.  I had told his mom that I would be asking her son,  “What would you like to learn?”  Most students are shocked when I ask this question and take some time to respond.  One teen I met many years ago was so angry after being thrown out of a private school, she shot daggers at me for about 45 minutes.  Finally, she said, “So, can I learn Egyptology?” believing I would say “no.”  Well, I took out my scrapbook from my own trip to Egypt.  She went on to rattle off many more subjects she liked, and earned 9 high school credits in one year.

Back to our first young man, he showed up with a two-page list of topics he wanted to study.  At first glance, a school might say, this isn’t in our course of study.  However, with some creativity, I think these topics could be slipped into this student’s coursework.  His list included:  Learn to edit videos, Photoshop (an art course), learn to cook (a health course), build a computer (technology), exercise — Tae Kwon Do and weight training (physical education), research on Autism (science), medieval history (world history — he was studying this in school), read the book Rules and write about it (English) –  this young man had an Autistic brother and wanted to write about his experience.  His list was much longer but you get the idea.  He has lots of interests but no one at school apparently asked him this question.

Richard LaVoie, in my opinion the best speaker on special education in the United States, has a new video called The Motivation Breakthrough – 6 Secrets to Turning on the Tuned-Out Kid.   LaVoie went on to say, if a student puts his head down, he is motivated to do that.

Like Richard LaVoie says, my young student was motivated to not turn in his homework, constantly irritating his teachers, and acting disinterested.  I said to him, “Mrs. Smith doesn’t like you very much.”  (Not her real name.)  He smiled and said, “How do you know that?”  I said, “I read it in a report about you,” and I quoted the comments she made about him.  He said, “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m always wrong, always in trouble.”

We are fortunate in our business, as we often create customized curriculum for individual students.  And, I know it is more difficult to do this in a public school.  However, I taught in the Cleveland Schools many years ago and was able to customize my teaching to a classroom of 42 fourth graders.  I had one student that couldn’t spell his last name.  It was ridiculous to expect him to learn the same spelling words as other students.  I gave him a list of five words that were at his level.  His classmates cheered when he got 100% and he was so proud.

Another very bright student was not doing his work.  I gathered up all of his work and missing assignments, and delivered them to his home unannounced.  His parents were supportive and the young man knew I cared.  He never missed another assignment.  I wasn’t chastising him in front of his peers, I quietly addressed his problem.

I know our teachers today are stressed by so much testing and complex curriculum requirements.  However, if they can just look beyond this quagmire to the students sitting in their classrooms, motivation issues like those in my story would diminish.  And, maybe their test scores would improve too.

As I said, I had 42 children in my class.  With some creativity, this young boy could have completed more of his required assignments in record time to provide time and the opportunity to explore his interests.  And, there may have been ways to get the required assignments done differently.  He told me he would like to write about topics of interest.  He was willing to learn fractions.  He wanted to investigate algebra.  These are all topics required in his school.

Let’s spend more time thinking “outside the box” and communicating with these “unmotivated” children and students.  Maybe one of them is yours.


Carole Email Pic

Carole Richards is president of North Coast Education Services, president of the Creative Education Institute which holds its Academic Fun & Fitness Camp at Lakeland Community College, author of Richards Learning Systems ® and a frequent guest on radio and TV.  She can be reached at


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Dave Hoffman