I Can't Do It!

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Lack of Motivation
I have a student in my kindergarten class who is constantly saying "I can't do it". This applies to everything from taking off her shoes to doing work. She has a difficult time following directions, and rarely does what she is asked to do. She is the last one to get her coat off when she gets here in the morning, and she is always the last to get ready for recess and when it is time to go home. I have tried encouraging her with "you haven't even tried yet, how do you know you can't do it?" or "I know you can do it", but these encouraging statements don't seem to help. If I try to give her timeout when she refuses to work, she would spend all day in a timeout. I think she enjoys the attention she gets, but if I ignore her behavior, it distracts the whole class. What is an effective way to deal positively with this type of behavior? Thank-you.



From your description, I can't tell for sure if her behavior is due to the "mistaken goal" of undue attention or assumed inadequacy. Do you have any of the Positive Discipline books? Each contain a "Mistaken Goal Chart" with information about how to tell what the mistaken goal is and what to do about it. Strategies for each are very different. I would "guess" that her mistaken goal is "undue attention." In that case, one of the best ways to motivate her is to give her attention by giving her things to do that contribute to others. For example, you might say, "As soon as your shoes are off, you can choose the book for story time tomorrow." You could also give her choices such as, "Do you want to hang your coat up while hopping like a bunny or swinging your arms like an elephants trunk?" I think you would find a lot of help in the books Positive Discipline in the Classroom and Positive Discipline: A Teacher's A-Z Guide Following is an excerpt from the latter book. You might find some suggestions that will fit for your situation.

Lack of Motivation

Discussion A student who lacks motivation presents one of the most challenging and discouraging situations a teacher faces. Typical responses to a student who is idle in the classroom are to do things for him, to push him harder, or to make him feel bad in the hope that he will change his ways. Other responses are to try to embarrass him or simply to avoid him. All these responses make the situation worse. The challenge for teachers is to stop doing things that don't work and take time to find ways to encourage both themselves and their students.


  1. Ask "what" and "how" questions: "How could this be useful to you?" "What are the benefits to you now or in the future if you do this?" "How will you be affected if you choose not to do this?" "How would you be contributing to others if you did this?"
  2. Use one word to communicate what the student needs to do: "Math." "Cleanup." Make eye contact, and try to have a firm yet kind expression.
  3. Offer your honest emotions: "I feel upset because you spend time on everything but your schoolwork, and I wish it was more of a priority for you."
  4. Act. Take a young student by the hand and lead her kindly and firmly to the task that she needs to do.
  5. Let the consequences be the teacher. If a student is doing nothing, this will be reflected in poor grades and in missed opportunities. Show empathy for the student when he experiences the consequences of his inactivity. Don't display an I-told-you-so attitude. Follow up with "what" and "how" questions to help him understand cause and effect, and use this information to form a plan for success.
  6. Notice when a student who usually participates abruptly stops. This may be an indication that something is happening at home, such as a divorce or serious illness. Or she could be having problems with her peer relationships.
  7. Engage in joint problem-solving. Decide together what the problem is and what some possible solutions are. Begin by sharing your perspective: "I notice that you aren't contributing your ideas in class lately and that you don't seem interested in your assignments." Then invite the student to share her picture of what's happening. Ask if she would like problem-solving help in a class meeting?
  8. Another approach is to refrain from offering your opinions and to let the student give his perception of the problem. Students usually know what's going on and they feel more accountable when they tell instead of being told.
  9. Discuss all the things that are going well for the student, giving her a chance to speak first.
  10. Don't take the problem personally. If you find yourself working regularly with a student or constantly worrying about him, you may be telling yourself, "If only I could come up with a way to fix things for him." Let the solution be the student's choice. There's a difference between letting go and giving up. When you let go, you can stay connected while handing the responsibility for the problem back to the student. When you give up, you cut all ties and send the message that you are no longer available.
  11. Assure the student that you know he's capable of doing a fine job on a particular assignment. The two of you can determine together that he has all the necessary materials and information; then you should confidently count on him to do his work.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Explore your student's lack of motivation through the four mistaken goals of behavior. (Refer to hat messages for more information.) Find productive ways for the student to get attention, to feel like she's in charge, to deal with hurt feelings, or to get help when she feels like giving up.
  2. Invite students to discuss lack of motivation during a class meeting. Keep two things in mind. First, when students are involved in making decisions, they are motivated to adhere to the decisions. Second, students participate more when they understand the relevance of what they're doing.
  3. Consider different styles of dealing with stress. A student who is afraid may withdraw and do nothing. What you can do for this student is to honor his pace, help him identify what he fears, look for a small first step, and require movement--however gradual--toward a goal.
  4. Build on strengths. If a student is doing well in any area, encourage her to spend more time in this area. (Don't forbid her to spend time on a subject in which she does well until she does better in another subject.) A student needs to feel encouraged in her areas of strength. Teach her to manage her weaknesses, and let her know that barely passing or dropping a class once in a while is okay as long as she is doing well in areas where she has strength.
  5. Create a peer tutoring program for students who are able to help and students who need help with academics.

Inspirational Story

Mr. Ingler came to his first teaching position with a tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm as well as many innovative projects. He hoped to engage each and every student. He was confident that he could inspire a love of learning in the minds of his young charges.

When the semester began, he was faced with Craig, who perceived school as a waste of time and who chose to do little or nothing in his academic classes. Mr. Ingler felt scared and helpless. He found himself wondering whether he was capable of doing his job.

In hope of finding the magic ingredient to turn things around with Craig, he talked with a veteran teacher on the staff. This teacher suggested that Craig's idleness could be his way of getting attention, seeking power, hurting others, or coping with a lack of skill.

When Mr. Ingler appraised Craig's level of discouragement, he understood his own feelings of helplessness and fear. He decided to work in small steps to encourage Craig. The first step was to show faith in Craig as a person, not simply as a student. Mr. Ingler looked for a way to help Craig feel important within the class. He made a list of three jobs that needed to be done daily and asked Craig to choose one that appealed to him. Craig chose to help the janitor clean the classroom for ten minutes every day after school.

As far as the academic work, Mr. Ingler didn't rescue Craig or give him special service. He let the consequences of Craig's actions speak. As this was happening, Mr. Ingler continued to show interest by remaining friendly and talking to Craig about his life and sharing some of his own experiences.

One day Mr. Ingler shared with the whole class that he had once thought he wasn't smart enough to do well in school. He explained that he behaved rebelliously to pretend he didn't care. Fortunately, one teacher saw through his act and got him into a peer tutoring program. Because of the faith of that teacher, he became a teacher.

After about three weeks, Craig approached Mr. Ingler and admitted that he felt he wasn't smart enough to do well in school and was just acting like he didn't care. He asked whether he could get into a peer tutoring program. Mr. Ingler quickly arranged this.

The teacher's small steps to encourage Craig had a powerful effect. He began to show more interest in his schoolwork, and in time his performance improved.

Online Learning

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