14 Using Motivation and Identity to Teach Students with Learning Differences

Darby Bowers

Now that we have discussed how our brain works and how that impacts students with learning differences, we have to use that knowledge to our advantage.  Being a school counselor I have noticed that some students have different motivational levels in classes based on their interest. I plan on discussing why students have different motivational levels with three different theories which can be applied to your classrooms.  I also want to discuss how motivation impacts identity and how student’s prior experiences can influence their identity. Finally, I want to help you apply the knowledge in your classrooms so everyone benefits.

I want to begin with the self-efficacy theory. The self-efficacy theory was created by Bandura and he describes this theory as the amount of confidence a person has regarding their ability of organizing or accomplishing a task (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). This is a very fluid theory due to the fact that every person’s efficacy is different and it depends on the situation or the subject (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). Bandura describes two different expectations, one based on the individual and the other based on the task. In outcome expectations, it is when the person knows that certain behaviors lead to a certain outcome (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). For example, a student knows that in order to get an 100% on a test they have to study throughout the week and review before the test. The other expectation is efficacy which states the person’s belief about whether they are able to do that behavior to accomplish the wanted outcome (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). The student knows that in order to get 100% they have to  study for the test, but the difference is if they actually believe or have confidence in their study skills. Before I discuss how this relates to teaching ADHD and dyslexia students I want to give you the brief summary of the other two theories.

The attribution theory is similar, but it is the person’s beliefs about their ability to be successful (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). It is the students interpretation of the behavior outcomes that determines how they behave in the future (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). If the student thinks they have success because of themselves or the situation then their self-esteem or gratitude will increase (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). However if they fail they will blame it on themselves or the situation, which will lead to shame and or anger (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). This is a very important theory because it might describe our students’ past experiences.

The final theory, best describes adolescents who experience learning disabilities is the self worth theory. This theory includes the mental health of the person and how that relates between their beliefs and their behaviors to achieve their goals (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). The self worth theory  relates to how adolescents develop their own identity due to the fact adolescents want to preserve their self worth, so they either stop trying or only do tasks that will be successful (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). Now that the basics of these theories have been addressed, it is now important to connect it to students that are diagnosed with ADHD or dyslexia.

Like every other teenager, students with ADHD or dyslexia have to balance their personal relationships and develop their own sense of identity. These students usually have had a tough time in school, so they have to balance all the struggles that come with being an adolescent and the challenges they face by having a learning disability.  I picked these three theories because I truly think our students would benefit from this information. In the self-efficacy theory it states the amount of confidence a student has determines their ability to complete a task. If students have had negative experiences with teachers their confidence in those subjects are probably weak and associated with negative memories. Having this negative framework in an academic setting will lead to a belief that they do not have the ability to complete the task. This can eventually affect their self-esteem. Self esteem is the evaluation of their self concept (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). According to (Master, 2016), we are more motivated to have a positive image and we want to behave in a way that matches our identity. This is a very important statement because if a student is not confident in themselves in a school setting then they are not going to have a lot of motivation to do assignments. Students with  dyslexia  have probably had several negative experiences of trying to read, so why would they be motivated to read if their actions are not producing the wanted results?

It is very important for us to realize that students with learning disabilities might not be lacking motivation, but their negative experiences may be the reason why they are not trying.  As a school counselor, providing information for teachers, we have to flip the students thinking about themselves regarding school from a negative to positive framework. We also have to show that they are capable of achieving good grades and completing academic goals that they set.  It is our duty to create positive experiences that show their successes are because of themselves and not external forces.

The self-worth theory states similar information, but includes that mental health has more influence in our beliefs and achieving our goals. This is very true for our students with ADHD and dyslexia because we see a lot of students trying to manage their anxiety towards school and their personal lifes. Due to their anxieties, they are trying to maintain a healthy self concept, so they are going to protect their self worth by not trying in school or not doing hard projects. This thinking framework leads to procrastination, excuses, avoiding challenges and not trying (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002).

If you as teachers, understand identity formation it will give more insights into every student. The working self schema is the main way that identity and your self concept is learned due to the fact that it has the central executive, executive functions and self regulation.  The executive functions are the memory capacity and their ability to focus and switch tasks (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). The executive functions might be lacking in students with ADHD since they have a more difficult time focusing. Self-regulation is the person’s ability to control impulses and act appropriately in different situations (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). We have to remember that our students with ADHD may not be purposely acting out, their brains are still in development. Their brains  have less connections in their frontal lobe then it may take longer for them to develop these behaviors (Sinfield, 2019). Understanding why our students may be behaving in a certain way is important because when children hit the adolescent phase they start finding themselves based on who they are and their surrounding environments.

Young adolescents ,with or without disabilities, go through these identity phases: identity diffusion, moratorium, identity achieved or foreclosure. When they first enter high school they are probably still in the identity diffusion phase which is when they are aware of their self concept but it is most likely based on family views (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). Towards the end of even the middle of high school they might be in the moratorium phase where they are thinking about their future which is usually college and they become curious. Some might say this is the identity crisis since they do not know their views (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). We have to understand that it is not your job as teachers to put views in their heads, but we can lend an ear if they need to talk. In order to settle this crisis or their view of themselves they either will go to an identity achieved goal where they like what they have become and found their own identity. The other option is  they might choose foreclosure where they take their family or friends beliefs and accept that as their own beliefs (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). Keep in mind that this does not start or end during high school, this is being worked on throughout the years after high school even if they choose not to take the college path.  If students are struggling with their identity, why would they want to be motivated in school when they have not been successful?  By not doing the difficult work students are able to maintain a positive self concept and a higher self esteem.

Even though I just said that students might be struggling with finding themselves and they may have hard experiences in prior classrooms that does not mean we have to go easy and only create simple assignments or solutions. We need to find the balance between challenging them, but also being supportive so they do not  feel like when they make a mistake that they are going to fail in the future. So one way is to have high standards in the classrooms, but also be able to openly discuss issues on a personal level. You need to make clear expectations then keep telling your students that they will be able to reach their/your goals (Master, 2016). If someone is struggling with an assignment do not get frustrated and instead work through the problem with the student, and possibly explain the assignment in a different way. This relates back to the self-efficacy theory because if the student has the confidence in their abilities to produce a certain result then they are going to be more motivated and develop a higher self-esteem.

Like previously stated, the self worth theory is about protecting a person’s mental health which would lead them to develop unhealthy academic skills or even not to try (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). What we can do to protect and help our students with ADHD and dyslexia is have all students write in a planner. In the planner they write all of their assignments and then verbally say out loud what they are doing that night for homework. The planner could be the most important tool in order to teach students how to successfully make a plan and teach better time management skills. If the students then are successful with their homework plan then they are going to feel more accomplished which will improve their self-esteem. Another strategy that works is writing an outline before actually writing the paper, so the students can put down all their thoughts and what they want to say in the paper. When we work on the outlines it can help our students with dyslexia since we are first talking about the ideas and then they can move onto the paper. When it comes time to edit and revise we are only talking about grammar issues and not their ideas that are being written. By talking about only the logistics then their self-worth does not decrease and they may be more confident writing the next assigned paper.

I hope by discussing motivation and how that relates to identity is beneficial when it comes to teaching and connecting in the classroom. It is also important to understand how this process affects the students with ADHD and dyslexia. They are probably used to being identified with a label which could lead into behavior change. It is our job to focus on their skills or specific behaviors, so the students are able to improve (E.Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020).  By giving you some techniques to use in the classroom, I hope we see students with more motivation and a better understanding of who they are and their potential.

References 

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 109–132. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135153

Master, A., Cheryan, S., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2016). Motivation and identity. Handbook of Motivation at School, 300-319.

Sinfield, J. (2019, November 24). How the ADHD Brain Biologically Differs From the Non-ADHD Brain. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-adhd-brain-4129396