Classroom Solutions > Addie Albano > Motivating the Unmotivated: Tough Kid Tools That Really Work

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Motivating the Unmotivated: Tough Kid Tools That Really Work

Toolbox At some point in your teaching career you will have a "tough kid" in your classroom. You may even have several at the same time. These students send you home exhausted, often in tears, and raise doubts about your career choice. The tough kid changes the dynamic and mood of the room in an instant, and you may find yourself wondering what to expect from minute to minute. The tough kid may come to you with a prior history, with warnings from your colleagues, and with a cornucopia of labels such as "at-risk," "difficult," "attention deficit disorded," or even "lazy." How do you deal with tough kids, and what can you do to restore order to your classroom? Read on for the top five ways to motivate the seemingly unmotivated. 


Definition of a Tough Kid

As characterized above, tough kids stand out from the rest of their classmates. While on occasion every student tries your patience and produces less than acceptable work, the tough kid consistently and continually refuses to comply with basic requests, engages in power struggles, and seems to be the one child that you can't reach. They have a distinct pattern of noncompliance that can quickly spiral out of control on any given day. Tough kids are often the topic of conversation in the faculty room. But while every teacher present may nod their head when you describe your particular plight, few will have a solution because there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to these problems.

The first step in determining the best course of action is to collect data over at least two weeks in the following areas: behavior management, homework production, and classroom preparedness. (For a quick and easy online tracking device, see ChartDog.) Once a baseline has been established, look for patterns or potential triggers. Then begin the process of designing a way to effectively address these issues.

The following strategies are tailor-made to address tough kid behavior, but you will find that the benefits of using these techniques will help any student struggling with low motivation or low productivity.

Mystery Motivators

Good work Mystery Motivators are incentive systems that deliver random rewards for positive behavior you want to encourage such as completing assignments, not talking out in class, adhering to classroom rules, etc. Their are several ways to implement this effective tool. Begin by letting your students know that one student will randomly be selected to receive a prize if they exhibit the positive behavior you are targeting. This can be done by placing a dark envelope containing a "mystery reward" on the classroom whiteboard. I also like to stick a Post-it note with a star underneath a student desk or write down student names on sticks for random drawings. If the chosen person has not complied, they are automatically ineligible and must forfeit their prize.

Keep in mind that you do not have to break the bank when giving rewards. Find incentives that students at your grade level covet such as additional computer time, homework passes, or lunchroom snack coupons. No matter how tough a kid is, EVERYONE likes to win prizes!


Contract In a previous post, I stressed the importance of creating a behavior contract during the first weeks of school. Contracting can be an effective way to correct undesirable behavior, and can be applied to many different areas. Begin by modeling the behavior you seek. The homework contract I use is filled with positive undertones that can change the way a student sees his behavior. Remember that tough kids often think that they have nothing to lose. . . . Convince them otherwise.

Self-Monitoring Strategies

Student self-awareness is crucial for tough kids because much impulsive behavior results from their inability to control their actions. A daily student tracking form gives specific criteria the student must meet while offering a visual assessment of daily conduct, both positive and negative. This sheet can be signed by each core content teacher, and will provide crucial data analysis. If you see that problems occur after lunch each day, the root of the problem may not be that they are butting heads with their math teacher, but that they are receiving too much stimulation and not enough transitional time between classes. Therefore, consider implementing a grade level five-week progress report that will provide a clearer picture of what is going on with your student.

                                             Tracking sheet

Take-Home Journal or Notes

One of the most important relationships we build is with parents. Students with behavior difficulties make this tricky since the majority of phone calls home occur because of negative behavior. A great idea is to "catch their child being good," so that when a situation arrives, they'll be more receptive to communicating with you. Take-home notes or journals are a great way to give parents a heads up on the day's events while maintaining privacy, and serve as an important record-keeping resource throughout the year.

Positive Reinforcers

Prize spinners, classroom lotteries, and raffles are all wonderful ways to reinforce positive behavior. Student-generated choice menus are also an option. This is done by creating a "top 10" list of items the student would like to earn as a reward, and can be used at any grade level.

If all else fails, realize that you are not alone. One of the best quotes I ever heard in college was "We teach the kids we have. Not the kids we want to have, not the kids we think we should have: We teach the kids we have." And each one of them deserves our best!


  • #1 Addie

    Saturday, October 01, 2011 at 03:41 PM

    Hi, Lydia! I'm glad you found the post helpful, and I would love to hear which reinforcers worked well for you. I love that quote too! One of my favorite professors in college said it once and it has stuck with me ever true!

  • #2 Lydia T Jensen

    Saturday, October 01, 2011 at 03:33 PM

    Thank You!!! You were sooo helpful. Love the quote at the end.

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Addie Albano
Addie Albano
Randolph, NY
Grades 6-8
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