Motivating Students Who Don't Care

Get to the bottom of your child’s apathy and help them find their ‘why.’

Prisma Staff
February 7, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

Get to the bottom of your child’s apathy and help them find their ‘why.’

A student who sleepwalks through school, hands in blank test papers and claims the dog ate their homework. When red flags are raised and other issues (learning differences or disabilities, bullying, mental health struggles) ruled out, there’s a new label to consider: the unmotivated student.

It’s a broad category, and it often takes a group effort between parent, teacher and student to hone in on the specific problem. Lack of motivation boils down to a disconnect between a learner and their environment, but the source could be anything from a child’s lack of confidence to a curriculum that doesn’t excite their intellectual curiosity.

With so many variables, it’s hard to make blanket statements about successful techniques that work for “most unmotivated students.”

But as a general foundation, we will say: as frustrating as it can be, try to approach this challenge with curiosity and collaboration, involving your child in the conversation as much as possible. The last thing you want is to turn the question of student motivation into a power struggle.

Instead, if you look at the potential causes of your child’s lack of engagement with their teachers and them, you open the possibility to strengthen your relationship and figure out how to get them (re)connected to their interests.


Why is my child unmotivated?

A question this big can be overwhelming, so chunk it down into pieces. Here are some questions to consider — both through observation and conversation with the student and any trusted adults:

  1. Are they unmotivated only at school or in other areas of their life too? If it’s widespread, that increases the possibility of a mental health issue that should be professionally addressed.
  2. Is this lack of motivation a new development or an on-going issue? If it’s a new development, you’ll want to investigate possible causes, whether at home or at school (a new teacher, changes in their peer group).
  3. Are they unmotivated around certain tasks or subjects?  There might be a mismatch between their abilities and the level of the course(s) (whether it’s too advanced or too basic).
  4. Are there specific problems with their learning environment?

Gather information about when your child lights up and when they check out, and you’ll get closer to figuring out the reason for the disconnect and how to help them find their enthusiasm for learning.  

Help unmotivated learners (re)kindle their spark

Get a better sense of the root cause, and you’ll be closer to finding a workable solution. However, even if you’re left with more questions than answers, the following recommendations might help you get moving in the right direction. Test out each one, see how it goes, and every time you’ll know a little bit more about what motivates your child.

Let interests drive learning

One of our foundational teaching strategies at Prisma is to let students lead the way. If you don't know what they are interested in: have they been exposed to a wide range of tools, topics, experiences, texts — the kinds of things that allow creativity to blossom?

Student-led learning means giving them choice whenever possible: If your child is reluctant to reluctant to read assigned texts in English class, see what happens when they choose their own books. If they’re reluctant to read anything, let them listen to podcasts or audiobooks (while following along with a physical copy), so that they build their literacy muscles.

Be patient if they don’t click with something right away, and emphasize effort over results. It’s a win when they dip their toe into something new or stick with something for a little longer than the last time they tried.

Broaden your sense of “academic”

Sometimes “I don’t care about school,” actually means, “I don’t care about traditional subjects.” Encourage them to pursue any passion — and you’ll often find a way to connect it to a core skill:  We’ve had reluctant writers author video game reviews and get hooked on writing all sorts of genres. We’ve had non-committal historians create historical models in Minecraft and watched them delight in acting as a tour guide.

If there’s a specific subject that makes them nod off, try incorporating it into an interdisciplinary project: get them excited about math by having them build a business; let them fall in love with urban planning on a trip to New York City. (Sometimes a kid who appears unmotivated is really a hands-on learner, just waiting to roll up their sleeves.)

Make it relevant

Look at your child’s curriculum: Does your child know why they are learning certain skills? Do you? (If you don't know why the skills are important, why do you expect them to be important to your child?) Connect what they're learning in school to real-world jobs by having them speak with adults who use those skills in their work, like we do at Prisma through our expert guest series.

Or, even better, make the learning authentic by having them present their work to an audience of professionals: In our Collab Problem Solving workshop, students presented their plans to power a city with alternative energy sources to a panel of real energy experts. Or when kids designed their own video game, we invited game designers to Expo Day to give feedback. A great way to do this on your own is to encourage kids to submit their work to real competitions (for example, in our Wild Inventions theme, kids submit their inventions to a Youth Biomimicry competition).

Give them space and time

Kids today can be over-scheduled. Between sports, arts, other activities, and family commitments, they may be missing out on that truly free time when they can be alone with their thoughts, figure out their priorities and passions, and get excited about their interests. Sometimes “checking out” during school time might feel like the only option. Offer more free time during their day (one of the many benefits of homeschooling!), and they might feel more motivated when they are doing work.

Encourage meaningful relationships

A powerful source of motivation is having an adult at school, like a learning coach, who knows your child well — what makes them clam up, and what makes them push full speed ahead.

Sometimes struggling students are simply overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities, choices and new tasks being thrown at them. That’s where it can pay dividends to build relationships with mentors who know what foundational lessons and key processes a learner needs to master before adding layers of complexity. Our Prisma coaches work to strike a balance: On the one hand, they offer concrete, practical strategies to help kids learn to organize themselves; on the other, they foster a sense of ownership by letting learners plan their days, check off their own to-do lists, set their own goals, and choose their own projects.

Teacher-student relationships are one piece of the puzzle; another is having a supportive peer group with whom to celebrate achievements. It’s highly motivating to know that at the end of every project, there will be an audience of peers waiting to hear what you have to say. We’ve seen some of our shiest learners come into their own through the excitement of presenting at our regular end-of-cycle Expo Days.

Seek help if you need it

Watching a child struggle with motivation can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes, all it takes is a new approach or extra patience. But other times, there’s something more complicated at work that requires professional support. If none of these strategies work for your learner, they likely need a more serious intervention, whether through your school, a family physician, or a mental health professional.

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

Want to learn more about how Prisma can empower your child to thrive?

Learn More

More from our blog