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How to Nourish Grit & Intrinsic Motivation in Your Students

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January 02, 2024


Intrinsic motivation

How do you motivate your students? Do you have a clip chart, a pull-a-card chart, or punch cards? Do you hand out classroom money, stickers, or tickets? Classroom reward systems are fine, but they don’t build real intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, work ethic, and grit. How, then, can we help students tap into their inner drive and develop motivation at school?

When students feel a sense of accomplishment it breeds self-confidence. When students are successful and accomplish something meaningful, they want more of that good feeling. Teachers can help students recognize that sense of accomplishment and encourage them to develop their confidence. Cultivating grit in your students will help them to persevere in the face of repeated failures to continue to work hard toward that accomplished, good feeling.

Where to Start

Here are some things teachers can do to help students develop their own intrinsic motivation in the classroom.

Applaud Effort: Sometimes students work hard and still fall short.

Help them to focus on their effort and develop pride in how hard they work, rather than only on the outcome of their work. Help students see all they have learned through the process even if the result isn’t what they want.

For example, if a student studies hard and still fails a test encourage them to keep trying and focus on what they HAVE learned. This is how students will develop grit.

Recognize Even Small Improvements: Progress doesn’t always happen as quickly as we would like it to, in ourselves or our students. We can encourage our students to celebrate their achievements, no matter how small.

Give Good Feedback: Part of our job as teachers is taking the role of coach to tell our students what they can do better. One way to do this is a ‘praise sandwich.’ We tell our students what they are doing well and then what they need to work on (specific, simple feedback is best.) We follow up with another positive. This way of giving feedback helps students relax, recognize our good intentions in helping them, and be receptive to our feedback.

Daily Confidence Boosts: Give students at least a few confidence-building experiences each day. It’s inevitable that school isn’t going to be full of only positive, confidence building experiences, but as teachers, we can help build at least a few experiences into the school day that can help build confidence.

Build Upon Student Interests

Differentiate: The best activities for building confidence and grit are those that hit the ‘sweet spot’ of student learning. Not too hard and not too easy teaches kids to persevere, achieve mastery, and want to try again. Differentiate and give students activities to complete that are on their level.

Incorporate Service Learning: Serving others has many benefits, and one of those is that it builds a sense of grit. All kids can be successful doing service of some kind. Whether it is volunteering at a soup kitchen, making a card for someone having a bad day, or reading to someone younger, helping others makes everyone feel good and gives kids a sense of accomplishment.

Encourage Student Interests: Student interests are a conduit for motivation and confidence building: All students have something they are naturally interested in. Art, sports, reading, math, or science might be a subject of interest. Encourage students to get involved as much as possible in their area of interest. They can be successful in a high-interest area and transfer that work ethic to other areas of school and life. This is a particularly effective strategy for students on the autism spectrum.

Build on a Student’s Strengths: What area is your student’s biggest strength? Find your students’ strengths and build on them. Grit, perseverance, and work ethic are skills that can be transferred to anything. Students have success in one area and begin to believe in themselves. They want more of that good feeling and will work hard to achieve it. Maurice J. Elias, psychologist and author at Edutopia says

As children come to feel competent in accomplishing something, they are more likely to try to replicate that feeling in attempting to achieve on more challenging tasks. Feeling competent can be addictive.

Don’t Over-focus on extrinsic rewards: Extrinsic rewards have their place. If you ask an adult why they go to work, they will likely say that their primary reason is to pay their bills. Money is an extrinsic reward. Still, we enjoy our work much more if we have an intrinsic reason besides just bringing home the bacon. Students are the same way. Extrinsic motivation is there to supplement, not replace intrinsic.

Praise & Continue to Build Strengths

Continue to encourage your students to accomplish all they can, praise their efforts and their accomplishments, no matter how small. Build on student strengths and interests and help nurture their intrinsic motivation for future success and learning.

Amy Curletto has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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