Picture Success: How to Get Students Motivated

By Ron Shumsky, Psy.D., and Susan M. Islascox, M.A., coauthors of The Survival Guide for School Success

11-30-successWhen students are self-motivated, they have a better chance of staying focused and succeeding at school. How can we help students find this motivation? Praising or celebrating successes can have short-term benefits, but these benefits aren’t likely to last because they come from the outside—from us. But, teaching students how to visualize the benefits of working—to see reasons to work and goals to strive for—can teach them how to find internal motivation to work and, ultimately, to succeed. Here are two easy techniques to foster that.

The Mind’s Video Screen
In order to work hard and really strive, one needs to see the upsides of hard work—the reasons for doing it. Essentially, we all have a video screen inside our minds wherein we can visualize self-motivating images. For schoolwork, common motivational images include good grades, receiving a college acceptance letter, and finishing the work with feelings of satisfaction. Other images may be less laudable and more in the moment, like finishing homework quickly in order to watch videos on YouTube.

To help students master this technique, you can:

  1. Set up a Video Screen CAFE. Images motivate us best when they include Color, Action, Feeling, and Exaggeration. You can create a “Video Screen CAFE” area in your classroom with empty video screens (TV and computer screen frames you make out of construction paper). Have students create their own images that include the four elements of Color, Action, Feeling, and Exaggeration. For example, Vlad can make a picture of getting a good grade and dancing joyously atop his desk while classmates cheer in adoration. Then, have students post their images inside the empty screens. Be sure to update images regularly.
  2. Encourage image sharing. Have students meet and share with one another what video images work for them for a given assignment or task.
  3. Pull in positive imagery from outside of class. Many not-so-motivated students in the classroom are quite motivated on the ball field or in the music room or art studio—mainly because they are generating positive images there (hitting the game-winning home run, performing the next smash hit, creating a masterpiece). Help them see that connection and show them how motivating images outside the classroom can work inside it, too.
  4. Check for negative imagery. There are also many students who are generating negative images on their video screens: poor grades, external criticism, visions of failure. With those images in mind, they see little reason to apply themselves. When you see students with really low motivation, ask them, “What’s on your screen? How well is it motivating you? What else can you visualize that would motivate you better?”

The Mind’s Cheerleader
Another key part of self-motivation involves self-talk, the messages we say to ourselves in our own minds. Basically, these messages can be self-cheering (“I can do this,” “keep at it”) or self-booing (“I’m no good,” “I’m stupid”). So, to teach and promote self-cheering in your classroom:

  1. Convert self-boos to self-cheers. Post a chart like the one below. On the left column, students can write in self-boos—statements they make to themselves that discourage working hard. On the right, that student and/or other students can counter those with self-cheers. Below, for example, Sarah has shared her main self-boos, and Irving has responded with effective self-cheers.11-30-chart
  2. Do class cheers. For many cheers, the actual words matter less than the feeling that the cheers generate. So create with your students a class-wide cheer. For example, one middle school teacher encourages his students to go wild with whistles, clapping, and the roar of the crowd when he rings a bell to start the weekly grammar lesson, thus creating a motivating feeling for what is typically rather unmotivating content. In keeping with that spirit, the ending bell is the cue for students to boo and show their displeasure that the lesson is over.
  3. Play psych-up music. Music can often touch us at a level words just can’t reach. Indeed, it’s used regularly to psych up for physical effort, and we hear it all the time at sports events, at the gym, and more. Use it for mental effort, too. For example, before a test or an arduous task, select a student to share a psych-up song for all to hear. Additionally, use psych-up songs to brighten feelings during dreary time periods. Another teacher we know has a repertoire of motivating songs that she plays on Monday mornings as students enter class. You can even keep a “Top 10 Mental Psych-Up Songs” list on a class music player, and update it as new psych-up hits come along. Here’s a short list of classics:
    • “Rocky Theme Song” by Bill Conti (this one actually has research evidence as being the most psych-up-ing song ever)
    • “Eye of the Tiger” (Rocky III) by Survivor
    • “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi
    • “We Are the Champions” by Queen
    • “We Will Rock You” by Queen

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Less clichéd, but no less true, is our version: Praise a child’s success in first-period biology, and you psych her up for maybe two periods. Show a student how to motivate herself, and you impart lifelong skills for the classroom and beyond.

Ron ShumskyRon Shumsky, Psy.D., is a U.S.-trained and licensed clinical psychologist and child neuropsychologist. He specializes in child development and learning, as well as converting psychology-education principles into meaningful and practical use. Ron lives in Tokyo with his wife, two kids, and their dog Pickles.

Susan_Islascox_photoSusan M. Islascox, M.A., is a learning support teacher at the American School in Japan, who is charged with the often daunting task of helping high school students get focused, organized, and motivated. Her successes and failures in that endeavor inform just about everything in her book. Susan lives in Tokyo with her husband and son.

The Survival Guide for School SuccessSusan and Ron are coauthors (with Rob Bell, M.Ed.) of The Survival Guide for School Success: Use Your Brain’s Built-In Apps to Sharpen Attention, Battle Boredom, and Build Mental Muscle.

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