Motivating the Seemingly Unmotivated Student

Teachers deal with students of all kinds, from high academic performers to students who struggle. You may have students who behave well and participate readily and those who seem like they are constantly disrupting class.

But what about those students who lie somewhere in the middle? You probably have students who quietly comply with classroom procedures, but they seem spacey, tuned out, or don’t readily participate in classroom discussion.

These students often are seen as doing enough to pass while not creating trouble. The worst they might do is not turn in their work.

Because of this, it can be easy to feel a sense of relief that there are no behavioral issues. However, most teachers would like to get them a little more motivated. But are these students just unmotivated? Or is it deeper than that?

The Deeper Cause
On the surface, unmotivated students may seem fine. However, a brain-based understanding of behavior actually points to something deeper. It is likely that these students are experiencing a dissociative response to stress.

When we are stressed, our stress response system, popularly known as the flight or fight response, kicks in. This can make us do one of a few things: fight, flee, or freeze. These responses can be categorized into two general stress response types: hypervigilant or dissociative.

Hypervigilant Stress Response
First, let’s take a look at hypervigilant responses. This is when a student identifies a threat and then automatically prepares to engage. Here’s how a hypervigilant response displays itself:
• The student is externally very emotionally reactive.
• They will look like they are ready to run or fight (tense, flushed, engaged).
• They will be very reactive to changes in the situation.
• A student may actually make physically aggressive moves or run out of the classroom.
• The body prepares to fight physically by mobilizing sugar and adrenaline.
• Formation of memory is disrupted.

Dissociative Stress Response
Conversely, dissociative responses are when a student identifies a threat, but automatically determines that there is no escape. In other words, they freeze or feign. Dissociative responses look like:
• The student is numb emotionally and generally shows little or no emotion.
• The student looks spacey or sleepy.
• The student is generally compliant with instruction.
• An extreme perception of threat would cause the student to faint.
• The body prepares for pain by releasing natural opiates that shut down the fear response, making the student less mobile and vocal.
• Formation of memory is disrupted.

What is Threatening About a Classroom?
We know that you want your classroom to be a safe place for all of your students. So it may be surprising to learn what some students might perceive as a threat. It could be a raised voice, close proximity to a teacher or adult, or even a brief look of frustration. These little things could be triggering to a child who has experienced physical or emotional trauma.

What Can Teachers Do?
It can be consuming to deal with students with behavioral issues. However, it’s important to note that students with dissociative stress responses, while unlikely to cause disturbances in the classroom, are suffering just as equally as students who act out externally.

Students who experience either dissociative or hypervigilant stress responses will find it very hard to engage with the class, understand the material, and retain the information because of their dysregulated brain. So what can you do?

Fortunately, the answer to both types of stress response is to help your students become more regulated and stay regulated in the classroom. Regulation activities include things such as breathing exercises, fidget toys, different types of seating, etc. It might be easier to see the impact regulation activities have on students with a hypervigilant stress response, but they are just as effective at helping students who are disengaged because of stress.

Here are a few ideas for specific regulation activities to try with your dissociative students.
• Deep Muscle Movements: Such as squats or lifting up both legs while seated.
• Catch: Each time you ask a question, toss a ball to a different student; when they answer, they throw it back.
• Body Weather Report: Ask them for a weather report on their body, which helps them to focus their attention on their sensory experiences; e.g. “I feel stormy in my stomach.”

Final Thoughts
A quiet lack of motivation shouldn’t be ignored. Rather, think of it as loud as the student who is hypervigilant. By helping to regulate all of your students, you’ll see benefits among students with either stress response, as well as helping your students who do great in the classroom. Regulation will allow your students to pay better attention, but also better retain the information you are teaching them.