Strategies for Motivating Students

Elementary teacher handshaking with students at science fair
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A principal wears many hats having to be good in many different capacities as they deal with students, teachers, and parents. One of those hats includes motivating students. Although teachers arguably play the largest role in student motivation, a principal can do many things to aid in the area of student motivation. An outstanding principal will have several strategies to motivate students in the areas of academics, leadership, and student discipline.

One thing is certain; there isn’t one program that will motivate all students. It will take a variety of programs to reach every student.

  • Student of the Month/Year – Most schools offer some sort of student of the month program to recognize students who excel in the areas of academics, leadership, and citizenship. Good student of the month programs offer substantial incentives for students who receive this honor. To motivate, you need something the students want. Each month you should have a special ceremony to announce your student of the month. Give them several things like a plaque, a gift certificate to a restaurant/store, convenient parking space, etc. Then promote them everywhere you can for that month including the local newspaper, school website, marquee, etc. Finally, make it so that only your monthly winners are eligible to be a student of the year. Make that unique by purchasing them something like an I-pod Touch or Play Station 3.
  • Reading Challenge – Conduct a month long reading challenge to motivate students to read. There are several ways to do this. You can have classes compete against each. In this case, the class that reads the most books over the course of that month will earn something as simple as a pizza party or an ice cream party. Another variation of this is to set a school-wide goal that if reached allows something semi-humiliating to happen to you. In my experience, nothing motivates students to read more than this. Some suggestions include wearing a silly costume that your students vote for, staying on the roof of the building over night, letting students shave your head, allowing students to throw pies at you, kissing a pig, parachuting out of an airplane, etc. Finally, you can conduct a reading challenge in which you reward your top readers with individual prizes.
  • Testing Exemption – A simple academic motivation tool for middle schools and/or high schools who require nine weeks or semester tests are testing exemptions. This provides students who maintain an A average over the course of a nine weeks or semester an exemption from such tests. The idea is that if a student puts in the hard work necessary to maintain an A, then they probably know the material well enough that they would score well. Although this type of thing program won’t motivate all students, it will motivate some typical B & C students who usually just coast to work harder to get that A.
  • Charms – There are several elementary schools starting to adopt charm incentive programs. Students can earn charms for a variety of things including good behavior, academic successes, athletic endeavors, etc. Many schools conduct assemblies every Friday to give out charms to those who have earned them. Students are given a dog tag or chain to put their charms on at the beginning of the year. Schools who have invested in this type of program consistently see improvement in many students who aren’t motivated by anything else, but they love to collect these charms.
  • Free Fridays – This is a program that provides certain students an organized free afternoon on select Fridays. This reward may be given to students who have earned a spot on the A/B honor roll for the semester, or it may be given to students who are passing all their classes. Students who don’t earn the reward are required to stay in class and complete work while those who earned the free Friday are exempt. Students who earn the reward get concession stand vouchers, can have free play in the gym, play games on the computer, watch a movie, listen to music, etc.
  • Reward Trips – Although the financial burden of paying for a trip may be too difficult for most schools, it can provide academic student motivation particularly in the area of high stakes testing. If you can get a local business or individual to sponsor such a program, it can be worth it. With the importance and emphasis placed on high stakes testing, the prospects of a trip can be a big incentive for students to put in maximum effort. One example would be offering a paid trip to an amusement park for any class in which at least 75% of the students are proficient in both reading and math on your state achievement assessment. There are not many students who would not want to earn this opportunity so it can be a big motivation to try their best.
  • Sweet Behavior Incentives – This program keeps an eye out for any student who is doing something selfless without being asked. If you have an ice cream machine in your school, then this would be perfect. Give members of your faculty and staff three ice cream certificates per week to hand out to students that they see doing something praiseworthy. This could be something as simple as picking up trash, opening the door for someone, helping another student in some capacity, etc.
  • Homework Pass Program – This program rewards students for giving maximum effort on daily class assignments. When a student earns seven A’s in a particular class, then they receive a homework pass that they can use whenever they choose. The student can then redeem their homework pass to earn an A on any assignment that they do not want to complete, excluding tests.