The Real Reason Behind Poor Motivation or Lack of Confidence in Students

What Came First?  The Chicken or the Egg?  I think lack of confidence and motivation in students comes down to this kind of question.

“If my son were more motivated, he would do fine in school.”

“I think she just lacks confidence.  That’s why she takes so long to do homework.  She’s afraid to do it unless I’m right there to help.”

“School’s not his thing.  He’s just not interested.”

“He’d rather play than do his work.”

Many times, we’d all rather play than do our work!  And certainly, there are things we are more interested in than others.  But when I hear parents or teachers make these kinds of statements, I have to wonder if I’m really hearing about a bright, frustrated student, coping the best he or she can.

If you think about human nature, we gravitate towards things that we are interested in and good at.  We feel confident when we know we have the skills or experience to do something.  As adults, when we don’t have the skills to do a needed task, we can choose not to do it or hire someone else to do it, but children and teens don’t usually have that option.  They are required to be in school and expected to have the skills do the job.

Here’s a student’s job description:

  • Sit for long periods of time
  • Listen, absorb, and comprehend
  • Read, comprehend, and use information
  • Think with numbers and be able to manipulate and apply them
  • Have good visual organization on the page and good attention to detail
  • Clearly express ideas verbally and in writing
  • Remember and retrieve information
  • Get along with others
  • Maintain high levels of attention and focus
  • Organize their space and materials
  • Manage time both in class and for homework and activities outside of class
  • Use a planner
  • Show what they know under pressure on tests and in discussions

Most students can actually do most of these things, but you have to admit, this is not an easy job description and there are a lot of foundational skills that need to be in place in order to work successfully and confidently at this level.

The skills needed to be successful in school are what we call underlying learning or processing skills – brain skills such as memory, attention, auditory and visual processing, and self-awareness and control.  These are skills that every brain needs in order to learn effectively.  These are not skills that are generally taught, but are assumed when students go to school.

If any of these underlying skills are not as strong as they need to be to support the learner, the student will have to work harder or longer than expected.  Bright students may find ways to cover or get around these challenges, but it will impact their self-esteem, motivation, confidence, and performance.

So that takes us back to the question:  Which came first?  The chicken or the egg?

The challenge or the lack of motivation or interest?

The lack of supporting skills or the lack of confidence?

My vote is for the former.  In my experience with bright but struggling or underachieving learners, students want to be successful.  They know what is expected and when they can’t achieve that as quickly or easily as their peers, they know it, and it chips away at their self-esteem.  If it goes on long enough, it may also chip away at their motivation and confidence.

The good news is that the underlying brain skills needed for learning can be developed or strengthened.  In our experience, once these foundational skills are supporting the learner as they should, students can go on to thrive at their potential with confidence and motivation. 

If you have a bright student who is underachieving or appears unmotivated or lacking in confidence, it may be time to look a little deeper. 

To speak to someone about your child or teen,

call Stowell Learning Center at 877-774-0444 or visit us at





Jill Stowell, M.S.

Author:  At Wit’s End A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Struggle Tears, and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities

Founder and Executive Director – Stowell Learning Centers

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