21 Ideas to Improve Student Motivation

When Spring Break is over, I'll have 6 maybe 7 weeks of solid instruction time left before Summer Break. Sometimes I think its hard to teach after Spring Break than between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The hard part keeping them motivated to keep moving forward. I have compiled a short list of ideas that I use to keep students motivated when the going gets tough.

Motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, is a key factor in the success. For the students I work with I play a key role in providing and encouraging that motivation in their students. Easier said than done, as all students are motivated differently and it takes time and a lot of effort to learn to get a classroom full of kids enthusiastic about learning, working hard, and pushing themselves to excel.

1. Give students a sense of control
While guidance from a teacher is important to keeping kids on task and motivated, allowing students to have some choice and control over what happens in the classroom is actually one of the best ways to keep them engaged. For example, allowing students to choose the type of assignment they do or which problems to work on can give them a sense of control that may just motivate them to do more.

2. Define the objectives
It can be very frustrating for students to complete an assignment or even to behave in class if there aren’t clearly defined objectives. Students want and need to know what is expected of them in order to stay motivated to work. At the beginning of the year, lay out clear objectives, rules, and expectations of students so that there is no confusion and students have goals to work towards. Student binders mean they keep everything—even the items they don’t finish. They know where to find it the next day.

3. Create a threat-free environment
While students do need to understand that there are consequences to their actions, far more motivating for students than threats are positive reinforcements. We have to create a safe, supportive environment for students, affirming their belief in a student’s abilities rather than laying out the consequences of not doing things, students are much more likely to get and stay motivated to do their work. At the end of the day, students will fulfill the expectations that the adults around them communicate, so focus on can, not can’t.

4. Change your scenery
A classroom is a great place for learning, but sitting at a desk day in and day out can make school start to seem a bit dull for some students. To renew interest in the subject matter or just in learning in general, give your students a chance to get out of the classroom. Take field trips, bring in speakers, or even just head to the library for some research. The brain loves novelty and a new setting can be just what some students need to stay motivated to learn. I don’t do field trips but I love taking the groups outside.

5. Offer varied experiences
Not all students will respond to lessons in the same way. For some, hands-on experiences may be the best. Others may love to read books quietly or to work in groups. In order to keep all students motivated, mix up your lessons so that students with different preferences will each get time focused on the things they like best. Doing so will help students stay engaged and pay attention. It’s hard changing things up because we all know consistency is what our guys need but I like to vary how they get tasks done.

6. Use positive competition
Competition in the classroom isn’t always a bad thing, and in some cases can motivate students to try harder and work to excel. Work to foster a friendly spirit of competition in your classroom, perhaps through group games related to the material or other opportunities for students to show off their knowledge.

7. Offer rewards
This is for those who have your own classrooms everyone likes getting rewards, and offering your students the chance to earn them is an excellent source of motivation. Things like pizza parties, watching movies, or even something as simple as a sticker on a paper can make students work harder and really aim to achieve. Consider the personalities and needs of your students to determine appropriate rewards for your class.  I do things like game day and extra computer time.

8. Give students responsibility
Assigning students classroom jobs is a great way to build a community and to give students a sense of motivation. Most students will see classroom jobs as a privilege rather than a burden and will work hard to ensure that they, and other students, are meeting expectations. It can also be useful to allow students to take turns leading activities or helping out so that each feels important and valued.

9. Allow students to work together
While not all students will jump at the chance to work in groups, many will find it fun to try to solve problems, do experiments, and work on projects with other students. The social interaction can get them excited about things in the classroom and students can motivate one another to reach a goal. As much as I try to ensure that groups are balanced and fair, however, so that some students aren’t doing more work than others—most of the time I find whole group works way better!

10. Give praise when earned.
There is no other form of motivation that works quite as well as encouragement. Even as adults we crave recognition and praise, and students at any age are no exception. We as teachers give students a bounty of motivation by rewarding success publicly, giving praise for a job well done, and sharing exemplary work but it is every better when students give it to other students.

11. Encourage self-reflection
Most students want to succeed, they just need help figuring out what they need to do in order to get there. One way to motivate students is to get them to take a hard look at themselves and determine their own strengths and weaknesses. Students are often much more motivated by creating these kinds of critiques of themselves than by having a teacher do it for them, as it makes them feel in charge of creating their own objectives and goals. This is something I added to our data notebooks—more time then not we not so successful here but I walk students through self-reflection before their IEP meetings.

12. Be excited
One of the best ways to get students motivated is to share your own enthusiasm. When I’m excited about teaching, they’ll be much more excited about learning. It’s that simple. Think Ron Clark.

13. Know your students
Getting to know your students is about more than just memorizing their names. They need to know that you has a genuine interest in them and cares about them and their success. When students feel appreciated it creates a safe learning environment and motivates them to work harder, as they want to get praise and good feedback from someone they feel knows and respects them as individuals.
I do sharing circles just about every time I meet with a group. We share (if they want) about something in their life. I get to hear what is going on in their life and they get to know about mine. I have students asking randomly about my dogs and nephew.

14. Harness student interests
Knowing your students also has some other benefits, namely that it allows you to relate classroom material to things that students are interested in or have experienced. Teachers can use these interests to make things more interesting and relatable to students, keeping students motivated for longer.

15. Help students find intrinsic motivation
It can be great to help students get motivated, but at the end of the day they need to be able to generate their own motivation. Helping students find their own personal reasons for doing class work and working hard, whether because they find material interesting, want to go to college, or just love to learn, is one of the most powerful gifts you can give them.

16. Manage student anxiety
Some students find the prospect of not doing well so anxiety-inducing that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For these students, teachers may find that they are most motivated by learning that struggling with a subject isn’t the end of the world. Students have to trust you to risk everything and to know no matter what the end result is and ensure that students don’t feel so overwhelmed by expectations that they just give up. This comes and some days is challenged beyond belief. It’s HARD to get them to see you won’t give up on them—no matter what.

17. Make goals high but attainable
I have a high bar for all my students. I set it through learning targets but this is something they can get to every day. Their faces light up when they hit the target of something they would have never dreamed of is huge for them.
If you’re not pushing your students to do more than the bare minimum, most won’t seek to push themselves on their own. Students like to be challenged and will work to achieve high expectations so long as they believe those goals to be within their reach, so don’t be afraid to push students to get more out of them.

18. Give feedback and offer chances to improve
Students who struggle with class work can sometimes feel frustrated and get down on themselves, draining motivation. In these situations it’s critical for teachers help students to learn exactly where they went wrong and how they can improve next time. Figuring out a method to get where students want to be can also help them to stay motivated to work hard.

19. Track progress
It can be hard for students to see just how far they’ve come, especially with subjects that are difficult for them. Tracking can come in handy in the classroom, not only can I see but also for students. For most of my students this works to motivate students. This year, I have student’s tracking their own growth. They even keep the data—it’s all about ownership.

20. Make things fun
Not all class work needs to be a game or a good time, but students who see school as a place where they can have fun will be more motivated to pay attention and do the work that’s required of them than those who regard it as a chore. Adding fun activities into the day can help students stay engaged and make the classroom a much more friendly place for all students.

21. Provide opportunities for success
Students, even the best ones, can become frustrated and demotivated when they feel like they’re struggling or not getting the recognition that other students are. Make sure that all students get a chance to play to their strengths and feel included and valued. It can make a world of difference in their motivation.

Some days motivating students feels like the only thing I get done and other days it works itself. What are you favorite ways to keep students motivated?


  1. These are great tips! I am trying to do some of these things already. For instance they get to earn external things in exchange for hard work, but I also try to back it up with, "You worked so hard, you earned this! How does it feel? Are you proud?"

  2. I think it takes me a month or so to figure out what works for each student. Are you seeing a differences? What works for your group of students?

    1. I have a weird class because I only have 3-5 kids and they are usually in transition either on their way TO a therapeutic day school or coming back FROM the therapeutic day school, and sometimes transitioning out of psychiatric treatment. So far I haven't had any of them for longer than a few weeks in a row!

  3. Wow--it sounds like quiet the challenge. That makes its hard to create a consistent routine to motivate students. What can I do to support you--coaching/checklist/suggestions? Let me know.

    1. Any of those sound good! ;) I haven't had much support or guidance at work because this is the first year that we've had a behavior classroom. In fact up until January it was just "Learning Support," which included kids with behavioral needs who came in for breaks or check-ins sometimes.

  4. I would love to provide you support with whatever you need/want to start. Let's move this to email and we can figure out where I can start to support you.


About Me

Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I'm Ms. Whiteley. I teach in the beautiful Mile High state--Colorado. This is my 13th year teaching in an rural K-6 Elementary school as a Exceptional Needs Teachers. As Exceptional Needs National Board Certified Teacher, I believe that ALL students can learn and be successful. When I'm not in school, I love to take my two Italian Greyhounds hiking 14ers and reaching for the stars. Thanks for Hopping By.

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