How Do I Tutor An Unmotivated Student?

Inspiring The Uninspired Student

Translating "I Don't Like School."

When you hear "I don't like school," it's easy for teachers to feel hurt or defensive. Educators put in a lot of work to make lessons engaging and challenging, so it's natural to see a student's complaints as an assault on your work and efforts. However, it's important to not simply write off these words as the immature complaints of a disenchanted kid. Instead, these words are a cry for help. They're a loud and clear declaration that the school system is not serving the student the way it should. Somewhere along the line, the system failed this student. It may be perpetually under-serving them.

Many kids — and even ourselves as learners — can accept and succeed within the education system's compliance-based and data-based structure and get through it without resistance. Others cannot, and over time they can come to see school as a chore, as confining, confusing, and pointless. "At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is a prison. But people rationalise it by saying (not usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well," says Peter Gray, psychologist and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Anyone who knows anything about children and who allows themself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalisation. Children, like all human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted." The confines of school can truly stifle learning for many students who, year after year, enter classrooms to be unserved or even rejected. "I hate school" really means "school hasn't worked for me", and, as teachers, we can do a lot to reshape this narrative.

Hear The Student, Value The Learner

One important thing to remember is that the student who hates school doesn't necessarily hate learning or you. Children and humans generally want to learn but may struggle or feel out of place or rejected in the school setting. "One of the most important things for educators — both seasoned veterans and those who are new to the job — to understand is that students don't hate education. Learning and discovering new things is a natural part of the human experience and, indeed, it's something that appeals to all of us on a base level," according to Wabisabi Learning. "Many of them don't even hate school as an idea — what they're responding negatively to is the rigid structure that school makes them adhere to… They don't dislike what they're learning. They dislike how they're being made to learn it." Students' experiences in school shape their attitude, buy-in, and relationships with adults. Hear your students and value them as learners. If they're not successful in school or display apathy for it, consider the experiences they've had within the system and their impact. What messages have they received? 

How might they have internalised these messages? How might they feel walking into school each day?

Making Connections

Relationship-building with students — especially the ornery ones — is not fluff; it's mandatory. Apathetic students distrust the institution of education and therefore need you to work extra hard to forge a connection of trust. And through that trust, you can rebuild their relationship with learning. "While many teachers may not think they have the time to spend building relationships, I suggest that we don't have the time not to. Relationships and instruction are not an either-or proposition but are rather an incredible combination. Research tells us this combination will increase engagement, motivation, test scores, and grade point averages while decreasing absenteeism, dropout rates, and discipline issues."

Give Them A Few Wins

Nothing inspires success like success. When a previously underperforming student sees some good grades, kind comments, or positive feedback, this may light a fire that can start to undo years of disillusionment. Give your struggling student something accessible and doable and celebrate their success. Gradually increase the challenge level and watch them. Provide support where necessary and leverage your relationship to cheer them on.

Activate That Prior Knowledge

Students are not empty vessels. Every student knows stuff, and we can activate that knowledge to make students feel empowered, smart, and curious to know more. Whatever the new subject matter, find a way to access what students already know about the topic. Even your most apathetic student has a lot you can expand on. Maybe it's interest (which you can surface by getting to know them), a skill they have, or simply some background knowledge. Surface it, celebrate it, and expand on it.

Undoing Apathy Doesn't Happen Overnight.

As an educator, know that undoing the damage can take a while. Students won't magically come alive and become eager to learn overnight. It takes time and consistent effort, which can be hard with a full classroom. Just remember that you have the power to move the needle with students whose education experience was lacking — and that's pretty profound.

Approaching The Situation

  • Try to find out what is preventing the student from engaging in the material. Does he feel like he has to do something he doesn't want to do? Does he feel it is too hard?
  • Try some strategies that address the unmet need:


  • Give the student some choices about how to do the assignment.
  • Please provide some information about how the assignment might help the student reach his own goals (e.g., share some of his strengths with other students).


  • Consider breaking down the task into more manageable units (e.g., work on the first two lines and don't worry about the rest for now).
  • Provide a start that the student can build on.


  • Ask another student to brainstorm about what each wants to write about.
  • Chat with the student for a minute about his likes and dislikes for a start.

Help Students Discover The 'why.'

If students are unsure as to why they are in school and why their classes are important, there is a chance that they are or will struggle to see the value in their class assignments. On the other hand, some students know their why and are self-motivated enough to stay engaged in class.

However, it is vital to remember the student experience is not linear. To best support our students, we must be intentional, innovative, and willing to help students explore what is important to them. Once students explore and solidify why school is important to their future and purpose, even if their assignments are not interesting, they can view their assignments as stepping stones that will help elevate them to their calling in life post-graduation.

Create A Plan Of Action

A plan of action is a helpful document that will detail the steps a student needs to take to achieve their overall goals in life—discovering their why is vital. However, it will be nothing more than a dream without a plan to help them get to their way. They have to take steps to turn their personal "why" into a reality.

This tangible resource can introduce students to the concept of accountability. By doing so, you can refer to the plan of action if you see that they are not doing what was discussed in the plan. In addition, it helps introduce them to respond without feeling attacked since you created the plan with a trusted adult.

Creating a plan of action will show the student that they are invested and willing to take the time to help them become successful. Once a plan is created, they will know how to navigate it to achieve their goal. It will also help students understand what and how goal-setting works. Finally, it will be helpful as they matriculate through school and life in general. 

Check-In With Students

Check-ins are strongly recommended. Checking in with students will not only show that the person they are working with is invested in their well-being, but it also gives them a space to express their feelings and concerns. In addition, conducting check-ins will help build rapport and trust within the student-adult relationship.

These check-ins are the only time they have a space to share what is on their minds for some kids. When doing these check-ins, it is important to tell the student that if the adult is made aware of any abuse, self-harm, or dangerous home situations, you must share these concerns with the proper authorities. That could make the child unsure whether they should share certain information because they might get somebody in trouble. If a student appears hesitant, reminding them that you care about them and want to provide any additional resources and assistance needed will be helpful. If this makes you nervous, role-playing can help prepare for the conversation. 

Encourage Your Students

Encouragement can go a long way in a student's life. Once a student feels comfortable with a trusted adult, they will share insecurities that they might have. These insecurities can span from physical attributes to their academic performance.

As mentioned earlier, the student experience is not linear. Some students go all day, and in some cases weeks, without hearing any affirmations or kind words in general. Sending your student's positive quotes will remind them that you support them and are invested in their well-being. 

During the K-12 years, students build and lay the foundation of their adult lives. Helping students understand and discover their purpose will help them for years to come. A plan of action will help students set goals and invest in their future. Checking in with students will create a space where the trusted adult can help create a safe space while gaining information to personalise their approach when working with their specific student.

When students know that someone believes in them, it gives them the confidence to achieve their goals. As students graduate and become members of society, they may not remember everything they learned. But they will remember the impact of people in their lives that helped them grow into the best version of themselves. As educators and stakeholders, let's use our platform to influence our students positively. 


Do Some Students Need Pressure And Control?

But one might ask – don't some children need pressure and control to succeed? The answer is no. Studies show that unmotivated students are even more negatively affected by pressure than more motivated ones. Less motivated students may need more assistance in the form of guidelines and clear expectations but pushing and pressuring do not help in the long run.

Taking a motivational approach can be difficult, especially in a busy classroom. But, when possible, considering how to help students satisfy their needs may help develop more motivated learners and improve relationships in the classroom and at home.


Tutoring an unmotivated student can be a daunting task, but it is not impossible. You may need to try different techniques before finding what works for your student, but you can help them get back on track with patience and perseverance. Thank you for reading our tips on how to tutor an unmotivated student. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Give wait time. When a student refuses work at first, sometimes all they need is a little wait time. It's okay to let them have their head down or keep their arms crossed. Use planned to ignore and wait to see if they come around within 5 minutes.

You accomplish more tasks with renewed wisdom. You grow as a person – persevering builds your resilience and strengthens your willpower. You become more focused on organising and sequencing activities, and. You become a visionary person who learns what works and what doesn't.

  • Promote growth mindset over fixed mindset.
  • Develop meaningful and respectful relationships with your students. 
  • Grow a community of learners in your classroom. 
  • Establish high expectations and establish clear goals. 
  • Be inspirational.
  • All you can do is try your best.
  • I am so glad you asked for help when you needed it.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • I believe in you.
  • Nobody is perfect, and that is okay.
  • You can learn from your mistakes.
  • Your perseverance will help you succeed.
  • Believe in yourself; you can do it.

Perseverance is persistence in sticking to a plan. An example of perseverance is working out for two hours each day to lose weight—persistent determination to adhere to a plan of direction; insistence.

As a tutor, you may occasionally encounter an unmotivated student to learn. It can be frustrating for both the student and the tutor, but it is possible to help even the most reluctant student become engaged in their education with a few strategies. 

In this blog post, we will discuss four methods that you can use to motivate unengaged students. Techniques include providing encouragement, setting goals, using positive reinforcement, and challenging the student. Using these methods, tutors can help students believe in themselves and succeed academically.


What To Do When Your Student Is Unmotivated

Try To Discover The Cause Of Their Lack Of Motivation. It might seem rather obvious, but finding why a student isn't putting in the effort can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. It would be best if you always tried communicating with your child directly, but their answer might not be clear-cut (or they might not know the reason). For example, some students lack motivation because they don't understand the material and have become discouraged over time due to slipping test scores. Other students don't see the relationship between what they are learning and how it relates to the real world, and they gradually begin to lose interest in class material. Yet another student may have no issues understanding the material but is dealing with an underlying learning condition or disability that isn't being addressed. Each of the students in these examples would require different forms of intervention, so it's important to identify the root cause of a student's lack of motivation.

Let's Use An Example. A high school student has never had previous trouble with math, but their recent algebra class is proving to be more difficult than anticipated. The student doesn't understand algebraic properties, and their last few test scores have barely passed. Having lost confidence in themselves, the student begins to give up, believing they cannot learn the material.

The Solution? Specific concepts and areas that the student is struggling with the need to be identified and revisited. A tutor is the best option for this, as a one-to-one style of instruction allows lessons to be tailored to the individual needs of each student. Once these learning gaps are addressed, and the student begins to see their grades improving, their confidence will begin to rebuild itself – and the cycle will continue. The goal is always to make sure students see a direct correlation between the effort they put in and the results they achieve.

In Other Cases, A Student May Not Be Interested In The Material. As we've mentioned before, a favourite line maths teachers hear from students is, "When are we ever going to use this?" With these types of students, extracurricular learning activities are often a great way to bridge the connection between their education and how these concepts are applied in the real world. For instance – if a younger student is required to report on the animal kingdom but has no idea where to start, we would recommend taking them to a zoo or wildlife preserve to get inspired.

Some Learning Issues May Have A Deeper Underlying Cause. For example, if a student lacks class participation or has behaviour issues, other factors might play. Although you can solve many causes of motivation with instruction and understanding, it's important to remember that some students require additional resources both inside and outside of school. If you notice behaviour that is out of the ordinary (hyperactivity, sleeping frequently, lack of attention, anxiety issues, etc.), make sure to reach out to your child's teacher and doctor.

Praise, Praise, And More Praise! At Tutor Doctor, positive praise is the number one motivator, as we always say here. Regardless of a student's reasons for being unmotivated, positive praise is universally recommended by teachers and educators alike. Although small rewards (gift cards, for example) can be a great incentive, we recommend sticking mainly to verbal accolades. We want our students to be motivated intrinsically (driven by internal rewards), not external factors.

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