Identifying Motivation Problems (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Grade Differences in Motivational Problems

Underachievement in the early elementary grades (i.e., kindergarten and first grade) usually has different causes than it does in later grades. Some young children do not work effectively on school tasks because they are having difficulty adapting to the demands of a new social context. Young children usually have not had experience in formal academic settings. Some have difficulty sitting still for more than a few minutes. They may also be easily distracted because they are not accustomed to the stimulation of many other children and activities. Sometimes young children, who are used to being able to choose their activities, are unenthusiastic about accepting constraints that the teacher imposes.

Although some children in kindergarten and first grade have difficulty following directions and completing tasks, most are eager and self-confident learners (although not necessarily on the tasks the teacher provides). Helpless Hannahs, Defensive Daves, Anxious Almas, and Alienated Als are rare in the early elementary grades. Indeed, most young children have unrealistically high expectations about their ability to complete tasks (see Stipek, 1984a, 1984b; Stipek & Greene, 2001; Stipek & Tannatt, 1984).

By second or third grade some students lose self-confidence, become anxious in learning contexts, and consequently engage in activities that inhibit rather than facilitate learning. Thus, although the kinds of adjustment problems experienced by very young children usually disappear with time and experience in a school setting, other problems emerge.

The older the child, the more serious the consequences of motivation problems. During their first 6 to 9 years of school, students have little choice in their educational curriculum. Because there are not many tasks they can avoid, children's motivational problems often appear in the form of low effort expenditure, poor attention, or disruptive behavior. High school students have more choice in the type and difficulty level of the courses they take, and even in how long they continue their education. Older students, like Sally, can avoid certain courses, or like AI, school itself. Thus, while the fifth grader who lacks self-confidence in mathematics may "forget" to do her homework, the older student may not take any courses in mathematics or more seriously, drop out of school.

Although the immediate consequences of motivational problems in the early grades of school may be less serious than those occuring in later grades, children's early experiences in school put them on a pathway that becomes increasingly difficult to change. Children's school performance as early as in kindergarten is highly predictive of their performance much later (Alvidrez & Weinstein, 1999; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Stipek, 2001) and an accurate predictor of dropping out is failure in elementary school (Garnier, Stein, & Jacobs, 1997; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Stipek, 2001). Motivational orientations that develop early in life no doubt play a role in this predictability. Indeed, some analysts consider low perceptions of competence resulting from early failure in school to be a major cause of dropping out of high school (Stipek, 2001). Achievement motivation, even in the first few years of school, therefore, has serious and life-long implications.


Careful observation of students' behavior is a critical first step in enhancing student motivation in achievement contexts. Thorough observations in variable contexts, supplemented with interviews and analyses of the educational program, are necessary to identify and understand motivation problems.

Psychological theories provide a coherent set of constructs and principles that can guide this analysis. Theories provide a framework for understanding, predicting, and changing behavior in achievement contexts. They also provide a framework for conducting research that will produce useful information about practices that promote student motivation.

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