Self-worth and the unmotivated student: Is your kid unmotivated, or are they worried about worthiness?
If your child is unmotivated in school, you have probably tried many tactics to get them going on their studies. Since motivation must come from within, and its sources are often difficult to identify, you may find your frustration and worry increase over time. This worry is reasonable since little learning can occur if the student is not motivated (Williams, K. C., & Williams, C. C., 2011). As you move through the maze of motivation, you may become increasingly unsure why your child is unmotivated and how to intervene.
Concerned parents may find it a relief to learn that, first, it is true that people have relatively stable personality orientations towards achievement in general (Vogue et al. 2017). Achievement is significant to some extent for all of us. However, for students with a relatively high need to achieve, the motivational beliefs and attitudes that fuel successful behavior are easier to come by. Conversely, if your kid’s personality is naturally more ‘laid back’, they may need more skills and support to overcome motivational barriers.
Concerned parents may also like to know that motivation befuddles professionals and parents alike. Motivation has a long history of academic investigation across many disciplines. There are many theories of motivation, yet we do not have a framework that identifies and accounts for every aspect of motivation (Williams, K. C., & Williams, C. C., 2011). Humans are complex, ever-changing individuals that elude exacting explanations. Struggling to help your child gain motivation is to be expected.
To better understand how to improve academic motivation, we need to understand the mechanisms of motivation. When a parent is concerned about their kid’s lack of motivation, they typically mean that their child is not putting in the effort required to succeed. However, ‘unmotivated’ students are technically motivated because all behavior has one or more motives. A motive is a goal, need, or interest that drives behavior. Most behaviors have several motives. When a behavior seems perplexing and counterproductive, conflicting, and possibly covert, motives may be the cause. If you have ever stayed up late watching TV when you need to get up early in the morning, then you have experienced conflicting motives- the motive to sleep and the motive to enjoy entertainment.
Struggling students often contend with two broad conflicting motives- the motive to succeed at school and the motive to avoid failing (Vogue et al. 2017). The motive to avoid failing, more commonly known as the fear of failure, is held by everyone. Few amongst us enjoy coming up short. Motivation to succeed and motivation to not fail may seem like different words for the same thing; however, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that flow from these motives are entirely different. Being motivated to succeed focuses our attention on positive behaviors that we can adopt to get what we want. Being motivated to avoid failing gives rise to negative emotions and thoughts, which results in avoidant behaviors such as procrastination and lackluster effort (Vogue et al. 2017). When students have high levels of both motives, they may feel stuck, as if their foot is on the gas and brake simultaneously. These conflicting motives can manifest as inconsistent effort, disengagement, anxiety, and more (Vogue et al. 2017).
Why is it that the drive to succeed is so often overpowered by the drive not to fail? To better understand this, we can turn to Self-Worth Theory. Self-Worth Theory asserts that our paramount psychological need is to be a valuable, worthwhile person (Vogue et al. 2017). Scholars believe that worthiness developed as our top psychological need because we are social animals. In prehistoric times, a person’s survival depended on their inclusion in their tribe. These days people can survive, although unhappily, on their own, but our brains still consider inclusion, derived from being a worthwhile person, the top priority. The need for worthiness is such a strong motivator that it has the power to sublimate all other needs (Vogue et al. 2017).
Students with an intense fear of failure typically have an unhelpful belief about the relationship between worthiness, ability, and performance. These students mistakenly believe that their performance determines their ability, which defines their worthiness. Self-Worth researchers call this dynamic the PAW equation:
Performance= Ability= Worthiness (PAW)
The problem with this belief is that when our self-worth is attached to our performance and ability, it can also be stricken down when we fail to perform well. And since self-worth is the paramount need, students will seek to protect it at any cost, even when that brings about the exact result- failure- that they are trying to avoid. Failure threatens our sense of being a worthwhile person (Vogue et al. 2017).
Parents can encourage their struggling kids to reframe each element of the PAW equation to get out from underneath the crushing weight of fear of failure.
First, we can reconsider what gives us worth. Our hyper-competitive, achievement-oriented culture contributes to the belief that our achievements (our ‘performances’) predominantly determine our value- how successful we are at school and in work, how much money we make, and what we own. To counter this, we can encourage our kids to see our human qualities such as kindness, generosity, and humor as the source of our value. Fostering this perspective protects our kids from being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life. Whether they fail, have lackluster results, or meteoric success, they can remain secure and stable in their worth as a person because that worth derives from their human qualities (Vogue et al. 2017).
Second, we can adjust our understanding and beliefs about performance and ability. Many students have a fixed mindset, where their performance is determined primarily by their innate abilities and de-emphasize the critical role of effort and skill development on their performance. This attitude makes students feel demoralized and demotivated when they do poorly on an assignment because they do not think they can do much to improve. A growth mindset better serves students. Students with a growth mindset believe that they can improve their performance by developing their skills. Students with a growth mindset can use negative feedback to indicate what skills they need to strengthen (Dweck, C., 2007).
In addition to challenging the PAWs equation, parents can encourage the development of success-oriented motives that can counter the fear of failure (Vogue et al. 2017). Typically, these motives center around developing character and skills, making ourselves and others proud, and learning to satisfy our curiosity and develop our intellect. Reframing education as an opportunity to serve these motives can loosen the grip of fear by directing attention towards thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that support their academic and general wellbeing. Alternative motives counterbalance fear, leading to more successful, ‘motivated’ behaviors.
Here are some examples of success producing motives:
Grow in my ability to tackle challenging tasks
Make my teachers/parents/self proud
Develop my discipline
Discover something interesting
Gain skills and knowledge for the future
Contribute knowledge to the field (for post-secondary students)
With the guidance of caring adults, struggling students can learn how to foster beliefs that motivate them towards productive academic behavior. With these essential mindset shifts, your child can reap all of the benefits of education. As they move towards graduation and enter the adult working world, they will continue to benefit from being solidly rooted in their worthiness, having the courage to risk failure, and understanding how to influence their behavior by focusing on positive motives.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.
Williams, K., & Williams, C. (2011). Five key ingredients for improving motivation. Research in Higher Education Journal, 11. http://aabri.com/manuscripts/11834.pdf
Voge, D.J., von Hoene, L.M., & Covington, M.V. (2017). Life beyond grades: Designing college courses to promote intrinsic motivation. Cambridge University Press.