Motivating Kids Who Quit

Adrian PruettGuest contributor, Adrian Pruett, is a native of Atlanta, Georgia with a Bachelors from Howard University in Music Education. She relocated to Houston in 2011 as a TFA Corp Members and taught Math and Technology to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students before joining the YES Prep Southeast team as a teacher, Grade Level Chair, and New to Blue Teacher Leader.

As teachers, we wear many hats — coach, cheerleader, tear-wiper, and lighthouse—  for students that, over the course of the year, become like family to us. And yet, despite our closeness with students, we may never know the experiences that create the psyche of these students. Why does one student feel defeated before they even begin? Why does another lack faith when we tell them we believe in them? Why does a student quit or fear challenges? It is our job to ensure that these students feel safe—academically and emotionally—and to foster an environment that welcomes new information and challenges. Below are a few pointers for motivating kids who quit.

  1. Set the Tone:

In Spades, the first card establishes the tone for the round. Similarly, we, as educators, are responsible for setting a tone of academic vulnerability at the beginning of each class session. If students aren’t raising their hands, we may be tempted to think it’s the students’ fault. But as educators, we throw the first card. For example, admitting where I made small or large errors in creating the homework answer key primes students to laugh at and learn from mistakes. Additionally, I am explicit and repetitive in messaging to students that “Questions are how we learn,” “Mistakes are how our brains grow,” and “We have to fight for our right to be educated citizens.” Our students may have fallen victim to classroom settings where it was socially unsafe to speak up when they felt confused. Our job is to first secure the environment at the beginning of each class so that self-defense mechanisms are no longer necessary.

  1. Call it Quits:

In setting the tone, we must also create clarity for students around what quitting is. Quitting might come in the form of finding distractions, choosing off-task behaviors, claiming to be bored, doodling excessively, and verbal or non-verbal refusal to complete work. Developmentally, many of our students lack self-awareness, and it is our job to understand that these behaviors may be signs of defeat. One strategy I use to help students develop self-awareness is the 20-second rule. Students have 20 seconds to decide if they are ready to start a problem, or if they need to reference their notes or ask a question in order to get started. No matter the case, each student is allowed only 20 seconds of lag time before he/she needs to ask for help or begin working— even if the student isn’t entirely sure the answer will be correct. Our actions, our swift redirections, and our consistent reminders message to students that quitting goes against our belief that every student can succeed.

  1. Appreciate and Recognize Small Efforts:

We want to praise students for taking academic risks like asking questions or trying a difficult problem, but we must also recognize that students show effort in different ways. For example, a high-performing student may be comfortable raising his/her hand to ask a question in front of peers whereas a low-performing student may not be able to express what it is he/she needs or is confused about. Therefore, we much preemptively search for and praise the efforts of our lower performing students as well. The caveat I will offer here is that, in praising small acts of grit, we run the risk or making comments that may come across as belittling. A comment such as, “I know this was difficult for you yesterday, but you’re pushing through and your strategies look wonderful,” is an excellent way to privately praise grit without belittling what may be a small act.

  1. Redirect Students in the Language of Grit:

Before taking this next step, we must honestly evaluate our biases about students who fail to persist through the lesson. If for any reason we believe that these students do not want to succeed or don’t care whether they understand, we need to recalibrate our thoughts and remind ourselves that all students/people enjoy the feeling of success. When students tune out due to difficulty, we can take one of two approaches. We can help them develop self-awareness by noting what we see and why they may be exhibiting that behavior. Here’s an example of how I might redirect a student: “I noticed that the beginning of your notes are filled out perfectly, but when we got to the segment with integers, you began to doodle. I know you want to do well and you know I believe in you, but if you choose to draw rather than to try and learn from your mistakes, then you will continue to have difficulty understanding. In 20 seconds I expect you to look over what you see and craft a question that can help me to help you get back on track.”

We need to remind ourselves that all people enjoy the feeling of success.

  1. Rebuild Reputation by Praising Mistakes:

One of the best and most odd realities of teaching is that we are the D-list celebrities of our students’ lives. They talk about us over lunch and secretly wonder if we have social lives on the weekends.  (Of course, not! Wink!) Even if they don’t want to admit it, our approval is precious and appreciated. Because a large percentage of students who quit do so to avoid the embarrassment of failure, we must use our red-carpet presence to rebuild their inner and outer image in class. This can be done using a phrase like, “I noticed that you marked a lot of questions wrong on the classwork but when I look at your work, I notice you are making the same mistake over and over. That means you are only one quick fix away from mastery! Keep it up!” More publicly, teachers can rebuild academic self-esteem with phrases like, “Juan and I were working through this problem together and he helped me to realize what I was unclear about. Thank you for pushing me to be a better teacher.”

There is so much power in the words, “Don’t quit on me.” Through our everyday actions and our never-ending display of how much we care, we can make students aware that quitting is unacceptable and that their success brings us joy. Fostering a sense of belonging in an environment where everyone strives for greatness can move the meter for students who need it the most.

What other strategies do you know or use for pushing students to never give up?


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