2 ways to motivate and support students who are failing (advice for all adults who support young people) by Education Coach Teo Weiner, M.A. 

Students and teachers have always struggled to understand each other, especially in the high school setting. Teachers view students as problems and see themselves as the problem solvers. Students see teachers (the ones they don’t like) as enemies. This power dynamic links directly to teachers mischaracterizing students and students engaging in avoidance behaviors like ditching and not completing work. Recently I surveyed a class of high school students and asked them:

If you had a magic wand and could immediately change one thing about your least favorite class, what would you change? 

Overwhelmingly, student replied by saying the teacher

Given this stance, how can we begin to bridge the gap between teachers and students who are at odds? 

Adults can use two frameworks to answers to this question. We have to begin by understanding that all human relationships operate best when there is trust and communication. And… we have to harness the power all adults have when it comes to supporting and rewarding approximations of success in the young people they work with. 

The importance of trusting relationships:

If you’re reading this you surely understand that trusting relationships are essential to the development and learning of young people. In order to fully engage in the learning process young people have to believe that the source of the knowledge is credible and trustworthy. Thus, if you are an educator, parent, or other adult stakeholder in a young persons life you must always remember that young people will never believe a word you say unless they trust and believe in the totality of your character. This means that even if you are observed mistreating someone else, any youngster could extrapolate the risk that you may treat them similarly and thus trust building could be deemed impossible. It’s been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder… well so isn’t trust, empathy, compassion, fear, and success. How adults are observed acting (viewed from the young persons perspective) is, in the youngster’s mind, how you probably will actor towards them. 

Approximations of success:

Rewarding approximations of success is essential to the educational process, and adults are responsible for making sure that this approach is manifested in their relationships with all young people. Approximations of success include any and all efforts made towards a certain goal. Even if the goal isn’t reached it is essential to the learner that efforts towards the goal are rewarded by the supervising adult. This means that every ounce of energy learners spend doing the right thing should be praised (verbally or nonverbally). Praising approximations neutralizes dissonance in learners in that it allows them to know that what they did was productive and correct, thereby reinforcing those desires behaviors. Too often adult stakeholders respond to young people with corrective and negative comments (problem solving behavior) about all of the things the youngster is not doing, or is doing incorrectly. This teaches young people that they are not good enough, decreases their motivation, and reinforces avoidance behaviors like ditching and not completing work. 

The strategies mentioned in this article are without impact unless adult stakeholders understand that overall, they are in charge. Adults are the ones young people look to for guidance, support, and knowledge. It is the adults responsibility to implement the humanity necessary to build trusting relationships with young people so that learning can happen. 

Peace and love,


Teo Weiner is America’s Teacher. He is an education coach and life consultant. You can contact Teo at doubleshotcoaching@gmail.com. 

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