Let’s say a student is labeled as unmotivated; he doesn’t seem to care about school or his grades or his future. This is perhaps the most common concern that educators identify, particularly as students get older. There are reasons – predictable antecedents to poor academic behaviors – that will lead to a lack of motivation. Let’s briefly define each category of antecedents.

  • Pre-cognitive self-regulation: The ability to attain, maintain, regulate, and change one’s level of arousal appropriately for a task or situation (impacted by health, nutrition, sleep, exercise, sensory inputs, and one’s ability to process inputs); the ability to control, modulate, monitor, and modify one’s emotions and emotional responses. These abilities are dependent upon, and related to, student physiological and safety needs as defined within his five-tiered theory of motivation (Maslow, 1943; 1954).
  • Mindsets: A sense of belonging, belief, and engagement in school, classrooms, and in one’s learning journey; students’ affirmative responses to the following statement represent a positive, growth mindset: 1) “I belong in this academic community.” 2) “My ability and competence grow with my effort.” 3) “I can succeed at this.” 4) “This work has value for me.”
  • Social skills: Respectful interactions with others and for oneself; the ability to cooperate and empathize.
  • Learning strategies: The ability to regulate, monitor, and reflect upon learning.
  • Perseverance: The ability to maintain effort and adapt; exercise self-discipline and self-control; delay gratification; and advocate for one’s needs.
  • Academic behaviors: Physical, emotional, and cognitive “attendance” within learning and learning environments; consistent and quality completion of tasks; active participation in learning.

SO, if a lack of motivation is a symptom, what are the causes? Moving from the top to the bottom of these bullets…a student who is hungry, tired, and/or with difficulties modulating emotions may appear unmotivated, and more immediately, may not display positive, growth mindsets.

A student without a positive, growth mindset-response to challenges may appear unmotivated, and more immediately, may not display positive social skills.

A lack of social skills makes cooperating and collaborating with adults and students a challenge. Additionally, a student without positive, growth mindsets may not see the point or the payoff in practicing and improving learning strategies.

A student without productive learning strategies may appear unmotivated, and more immediately, may not regularly persevere.

Finally, a student who does not persevere will likely appear unmotivated.

What’s the point of this example? Simply this. There are reasons – explanations, causes, antecedents – to a student’s lack of motivation. We can identify these reasons and do something about it. “Behavior is a form of communication providing clues about what is missing in a young person’s life” (Seita, 2014, p. 29).

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