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When Schools Help Students Transcend Chronic Stress to Tap Motivation

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 (Zen Fashion Gallery/Flickr)

While many educators now recognize that "noncognitive" factors that affect how a student thinks about his or her abilities are important to learning academic content, there's little consensus about how teachers can help build those qualities. Some districts are trying to include noncognitive factors in measures of school effectiveness, while other schools focus on certain character qualities as part of their mission.

Educators are trying to figure out how to motivate students to work hard in school and to help them see the rewards for that hard work as a real possibility. But that work is particularly challenging as the public school population becomes increasingly low income and children often come to school having experienced chronic stress or trauma in their home lives that significantly impact their ability to regulate emotions, focus, and deescalate situations.

In an in-depth article in The Atlantic, Paul Tough digs into how schools can act on neuroscience and psychology research that reveals a complicated relationship between student motivation, mindsets about belonging and autonomy, and cognitive development. Tough writes:

The problem is that when disadvantaged children run into trouble in school, either academically or behaviorally, most schools respond by imposing more control on them, not less. This diminishes their fragile sense of autonomy. As these students fall behind their peers academically, they feel less and less competent. And if their relationships with their teachers are wary or even contentious, they are less likely to experience the kind of relatedness that Deci and Ryan describe as being so powerfully motivating for young people in the classroom. Once students reach that point, no collection of material incentives or punishments is going to motivate them, at least not in a deep or sustained way.

All of which brings me back to the question of how to help children develop those mysterious noncognitive capacities. If we want students to act in ways that will maximize their future opportunities—to persevere through challenges, to delay gratification, to control their impulses—we need to consider what might motivate them to take those difficult steps. What Deci and Ryan’s research suggests is that students will be more likely to display these positive academic habits when they are in an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, independence, and growth—or, to use Deci and Ryan’s language, where they experience relatedness, autonomy, and competence.


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