Motivating Intervention Students: It Takes More than Mindset

How do we get students to do hard things? It’s true that most classrooms grapple with this concept in some form or another whether the students are high-achieving or not. It is a universal challenge; however, in our intervention classrooms, there is an acute need for an immediate and intentional set of moves with a potential to reverse these students’ pattern of chronic failure.

In Table 1, we see that growth minded behaviors seem to logically lead to higher growth and achievement.  But most of us know that telling students to have a growth mindset is not successful. Knowing I CAN grow and then making the leaps needed to do the work to grow is a wide chasm that many people choose not to cross.  Just apply this concept to our adult lives. I KNOW I can train to run a marathon.  26.1 miles is doable. But will I do the work, put in the time, let other people watch me do it badly, get a slow time, pay the money, and do what I say I will by the race date?  Well, in order to do that, I need more than the knowledge that “I can.”

Adapted from Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

What do you do to get your students to do hard things? Comment below to share with others!
In part I of this post, let’s discuss two out of four moves that we can make in intervention settings to accelerate our students’ motivation as well as their reading and math skills. 

Move 1: Belonging

First, a student has to feel like she is part of a learning community, and to identify herself as part of the in-group of students who work hard at learning. If she doesn’t see herself in this group, she will choose out-group behaviors (truancy, not completing work, etc.) to create a sense of belonging.  Taking the time to build a classroom community of learners is time well spent in our intervention courses.

Some ways to build a community in an intervention setting are:

  • Getting to know our students and getting them to know one another: These students share a lot of experiences and getting them to see how alike they all are, regardless of their obvious diversity, will help them build a strong sense of commtask is the product of (a) the degree to which they expect to succeed at the task, and (b) the degree to which they value the task and value success on the task." (Green 2002: 990)
  • Unity. Talking about topics like, What makes a great partner in partner work? or What do successful learners do? or How did you get good at ___? Are all wonderful quick topics for getting to know each other in a way that fosters a learning community.  Many of these students also share the experience of chronic failure. So this topic can also come up with discussions about “How can we support each other when learning gets hard?” or “What are great ways we can help our peers when they get stuck?” or “What can we do when we want to give up?"
  • Rehearsing instructional routines and growth minded behaviors: Make it clear that these behaviors are learned. Otherwise young people can think, “Oh, I am just not that kind of student”.  They may not realize that they can indeed learn to be and that this class will teach them how. And let’s check our own beliefs about whether our students can learn these behaviors.  They can.
  • Practicing effective feedback and self-talk: The things we say to ourselves can be awful.  If we take time to talk with our students about how they talk to themselves when things get hard or when they fail, we can help them change their self-talk.  First identify the destructive and de-motivating messages. Then practice a re-frame of the most common phrases. Avoid just making a poster and telling them what to do.  Engage in this process with your class each year so that they experience the cognitive shift themselves. See an example here.

Move 2: Sense of Purpose

How well does a task relate to current and future goals?  Oh geez! While it may feel overwhelming to “own” the idea of connecting your class to a child’s goals (especially since many are a bit fuzzy about their goals themselves), there are things we should know that will help us resiliently support our students.

Typically, intervention students don't expect good results in school, and they are unsure of the value of school in their life. This is described as Expectancy-Value theory and is a key to understanding the achievement behaviors students choose.

If a student expects that school will not help him achieve his goals, he is unlikely to engage purposefully in learning tasks. How can you help him foster a sense of purpose?

  • Working on topics students care about: Capitalizing on high interest topics and encouraging students to dig in with curiosity to texts, essential questions, and applied mathematics will instill a deep understanding of the value of the challenging work we require from our students.
  • Understanding the “why”:  This is related to having relevant topics; however, I can add that being explicit about the “why” for instructional procedures and routines can improve your students’ time-on-task thus transforming their learning results.
  • Working with like-motivated peers:  One way to shift a student’s achievement behaviors is also by building strong relationships and fostering belongingness, for which you have a few examples above. (Martin 2009: 334). But for even more ideas you can read a wonderful post by Greg Walton of the Mindset Scholars Network here.
  • Delivering results of their own creation:  When I was teaching, I felt that this is differentiation at it’s finest!  Not only were my students choosing how they wanted to show me what they learned, but also, I avoided the drudgery of assessing the same thing 90+ times. So when appropriate, see what choices you can offer students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. 

Summer is a perfect time to reflect and plan for infusing these moves purposefully into your teaching practices. What is inspiring you?

In my August post, I will discuss two other moves we can make to foster motivation in an intervention setting:

  • Move 3: Locus of Control
  • Move 4: Taking on Challenges 

For more on this topic see Diehl’s post on Shaped
Dweck, Carol S.. (2008) Mindset :the new psychology of success New York : Ballantine Books, 263.

Green, S. (2002). Using an expectancy-value approach to examine teachers' motivational strategies. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18(8), 989-1005.

Martin, A., & Dowson, M. (2009). Interpersonal relationships, motivation, engagement, and achievement: Yields for theory, current issues, and educational practice. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 327-65.

Walton, Greg. “Supporting Students' Sense of Belonging.” Mindset Scholars Network, 14 Sept. 2017, mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/supporting-students-sense-belonging/.


As an educational consultant, author, and curriculum designer, Emily Diehl translates the latest educational research on academic mindsets and motivation into student programs and teacher practices. She served as an ELA and Reading teacher and instructional coach in South Sacramento, California, implementing mindset research in schools with students and adults. In 2009, she began her work with Mindset Works, Inc., as a classroom teacher, then joined the team in 2013. Emily supports schools across the country in implementation of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), Leadership, and professional learning sessions working with schools like School District of Philadelphia; New York City Schools; Washington, DC, Public Schools; Cincinnati Public Schools; and Los Angeles Unified School District. She has contributed to programs for Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Mindset Works, including MATH 180, READ 180, Brainology, MindsetMaker, and LeaderKit. She frequently writes for the Mindset Works blog and other publications.

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