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This school year has been like no other. As students return to in-person learning, an experienced educator reflects on words that can motivate K-12 learners.

The past year has demanded much of students as they navigate the challenges of distance and hybrid learning environments. As many districts are transitioning between learning models, our students struggle to manage the academic demands set before them. We need to ask ourselves how are we motivating K-12 learners?

Many are returning to in-person learning with a pile of missing assignments which can be very overwhelming. As teachers, we can support students by offering encouragement and utilizing our role to give hope.  

Much of my understanding of effective feedback comes from the work of Dr. Carol Dweck and her focus on a growth mindset. A growth mindset is critical, but it can sometimes be difficult to cultivate in students who feel overwhelmed. Carefully choosing our words can have a vast impact when students fall behind and lose faith in themselves.

Teachers may talk about school without meaning to in ways that diminish students’ enthusiasm for learning; Mike Andersons writes in What We Say and How We Say It Matters.  Instead, he shares that teachers need to persuade students that their time, attention, and effort are worth spending on their education. If we help students see their tasks as manageable, meaningful, and even possibly enjoyable, we have a much better chance of supporting their achievement.

Over the past month, I have supported countless students as they wade through a pile of missing work to submit assignments before the end of the trimester. Although most students are competent, the mental load of managing the demands of distance, hybrid, and in-person learning, coupled with the stress of transitioning out of their home environments, have created immense struggle.  

Along with my colleagues’ help, I have arrived at five highly effective phrases that have helped convey positive messages motivating K-12 students. 

Five Phrases

This assignment is more manageable than it seems! 

When students feel overwhelmed by the bulk of work set before them, they tend to shut down. There is one magic word that seems to unlock their comfort and persuade them to dive in.  DOABLE. Students must perceive that tasks are possible, and as teachers, it is up to us to foster a sense of efficacy that can drive students to success. NOTE: This may not apply in situations where the work is super challenging. If you know that an academic task is stretching a student’s ability level, encourage them by letting them know support is available if they need it.

Here is why we are learning this. 

Too often, we set assignments before students without making them relevant. When students are experiencing stress and playing the ‘catch up’ game, it can serve them well to know why they are learning the information. Connecting the tasks to something meaningful for the student is critical to increasing motivation.

At times it is difficult to find the purpose behind our content. For example, I haven’t done algebra in years. In these moments, we can leverage the student’s personal goals to give them a ‘why.’ As a high school teacher, I frequently highlight graduation’s importance in unlocking future success. For middle school students, mastering information can mean the opportunity to choose more elective classes they enjoy rather than engage in intervention courses. At the elementary level, motivation is often more extrinsic, and first, then prompts can give students a reason to complete their tasks. First math, then recess can be pretty appealing!

Let’s take this one step at a time.  

To believe in possibilities, we must offer them manageable amounts of work at a time. Breaking tasks down into chunks or providing step-by-step to-do lists can be highly supportive for all learners. When a student is particularly stressed, it may help write assignments or tasks on index cards and hand them to the student one at a time. This approach will help them focus on the task at hand rather than the entire list.

Just start somewhere, and I’m here if you need help.  

Academic confidence is a huge issue when students fall behind, preventing them from taking the initiative. Persuading students to dive in with the knowledge that support is available can assist them in taking the plunge. Once they get started, they most often find that they can carry out the task and don’t even need to utilize help. Showing students where the entry point is will help them to begin the assignment. It may mean providing a graphic organizer to give structure for written assignments. It can also mean showing a few examples to get the ball rolling. The hope is that they dive in and let go of their fear of taking the plunge!

You are more capable than you think!  

Distance learning has been a stretch for even our most capable learners. We have asked our students to take on challenges that would be difficult for most adults. Independently disciplining themselves to keep up in online classes is something they didn’t choose, but most have risen to the challenge. Reinforce the progress and capabilities you see in students. Acknowledge the difficulties they have surmounted and use this to leverage them into finishing out the year strong. They are indeed brilliant learners who have accomplished much throughout the pandemic!

Teachers who convey that they genuinely care about their students will naturally offer encouragement and support. When we show up as a caring and supportive presence for them, they respond by engaging at a higher level. Finding the words to help them overcome the intimidating nature of some academic tasks and building their confidence in their capabilities can result in life-changing improvements for students.

Rachel Jorgensen

Rachel Jorgensen, M.A., is a special education teacher and coordinator of work-based learning at Anoka Hennepin Public Schools and professor at Bethel University who has an interest in empowering students through relationships. She is the author of the book Loving Your Job in Special Education: 50 Tips and Tools and current program director for the Teacher Coordinator of Work-Based Learning Program at Bethel University, which is an online program inviting educators to bolster their skills in supporting students as they transition from school to work. Rachel is working on her second book and parenting two teenagers. Much of her time is spent driving them to their activities!