Youth and Motivation

“It’s hard to be motivated” – Why Teens are Experiencing Low Motivation and How We Can Help

Recently, there was an online panel discussion of high school students who shared their experiences dealing with all the changes when it came to their learning. As we know, students in Ontario have had to adapt to different structures and systems of learning for over a year now. They started off by making a full transition to online learning, then back to in-person learning or hybrid of both, to now fully online again. They have gone from semestered or non-semestered to “quad-mester” or even “octo-mester” (yes, that’s one too!).

In listening to this panel of students and in working with this client population, here are some key take-aways about their experiences and what adults can do to support them.

Main challenge: Low Motivation

During the panel discussion, they were asked: “What has been your main challenge as a student?” One common answer was: “It’s hard to be motivated.”

Even outside of this panel discussion of students, in working with this client population one-on-one, many students have expressed decreased motivation to complete school work. This decreased motivation often seeps into participating in recreational activities. Many of these activities are those they would have previously completed outside and still can but choose not to (e.g. biking, roller-blading, skateboarding). With all the accumulation of screen time, it seems like screens have become the most comfortable and viable source of entertainment for students. It’s all they know now. In looking at their screen time stats on their phone, one student reported that they spend on average 10-11 hours on their phone. They expressed how it’s become this mindless and effortless way of seeking entertainment.

The Vicious Cycle of Low Motivation

With regards to school, many students are going through this vicious cycle as shown below. With the ongoing pandemic and switch back to online schooling, students are feeling like they have less and less energy and motivation to keep going with their school work. As a result, they fall behind. Some students have expressed that as they lag behind, they feel confused by any new material that is presented. Meanwhile, they are too hesitant to reach out for help. They don’t want to admit that they are so behind, come across as inattentive in class, or feel like a burden. So what happens? They fall even more behind. They become even less motivated to attempt to catch up because they are already so behind.

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Findings Ways to Support and Motivate Students

Since students feel hesitant to reach out for help, we can target that point in the cycle by increasing their comfort to reach out. Students may just need to hear that it’s okay to be behind and that they won’t be judged for falling behind. If students aren’t reaching out for help, we can start by bringing the help to them, then gradually building their capacity and comfort to ask for help more independently. This will be especially important should they pursue post-secondary education. Building their independence was also discussed in this blog post about parents with anxious children. Given that it’s often due to a student’s anxious thoughts that prevents them from reaching out, this blog has some helpful tips on addressing anxiety.

Focusing on small goals is also important to gradually build a sense of motivation to complete tasks in general. The goal needs to be meaningful and challenging enough for students to feel accomplished as they stretch their skills in achieving that goal. It can be researching something of interest and having a conversation with someone about it, or learning something new (an instrument, a language, a new game or sport). If students can carve out some time to pursue more meaningful activities, they’ll likely be able to bring back even just a little bit of that motivation.

“You’re Doing The Best You Can”

At the end of the panel discussion, the students shared some thoughts on how they would best feel supported by the adults in their lives. They expressed how much it would mean to them to hear any of the following:

““I know you’re doing the best you can.”

“I’m here to help you take it one day at a time.”

“How can I support you?”

It’s been a tough-go for students this past year. And like so many of us, they have taken the time to reflect on their experiences and their own mental health needs. At the end of the day, what they really want is to feel seen and heard. So next time you see a student expressing how they just don’t feel motivated or are worried about how far behind they are, a simple “You’re doing the best you can” will go a long way.