Motivation Challenge 6: The Student Lacks a Positive Relationship with the Teacher

Profile of a Student with This Motivation Problem: The student appears indifferent or even hostile toward the instructor and thus may lack motivation to follow teacher requests or to produce work.


What the Research Says: Because humans are highly social beings, positive teacher attention can be a very powerful motivator for students (e.g., Kazdin, 1989). However, teachers often do not make adequate use of simple but effective tools such as praise to promote positive interactions with their students (Kern & Clemens, 2007). At times, instructors and students can even fall into a ‘negative reinforcement trap’ (Maag, 2001; p. 176) that actively undercuts positive relationships. In this situation, a student who has difficulty with the classwork misbehaves and is then sent by the teacher to the principal’s office. Both teacher and student are reinforced by the student’s exclusion from the classroom: The teacher is negatively reinforced by having a difficult student removed from the room and the student is also negatively reinforced by being allowed to escape the challenging classwork. Because this scenario is reinforcing to both parties, it is very likely to be repeated with increasing frequency unless the teacher intervenes to break the negative cycle.


How to Verify the Presence of This Motivation Problem: The teacher looks for evidence that the student lacks a positive relationship with the teacher, such as:

  • the student’s apparent avoidance of opportunities to talk to the teacher
  • a lack of eye contact, sarcastic or defiant student comments
  • a general pattern of defiant or non-compliant behavior.

NOTE: Because teachers as well as students are social beings, an instructor’s impression of whether a student ‘likes’ them or not can often be a good predictor of the actual state of the teacher-student relationship.


How to Fix This Motivation Problem:


The teacher provides the student with increased doses of positive attention at times when the student is engaging in appropriate behavior (Kazdin, 1989). (At the same time, the teacher keeps interactions with the student brief and neutral when that student misbehaves—although the student otherwise is held to the same behavioral expectations as his or her peers.)


Try These Ideas to Improve Motivation by Improving the Teacher-Student Relationship: Here are ideas that promote an improved teacher-student relationship as a motivation tool:

  • Strive for a High Ratio of Positive Interactions with Students (Sprick, Borgmeier, & Nolet, 2002). A general, proactive rule of thumb to promote positive teacher-student relationships is for instructors to maintain a ratio of at least three positive interactions with any student for every negative (disciplinary) interaction that they have that student.
  • Commit to a Short Series of Positive ‘Micro-Conversations’ (Mendler, 2000). The teacher selects a student with whom that instructor wants to build a more positive relationship. The instructor makes a commitment to spend 2 minutes per day for ten consecutive days engaging the student in a positive conversation about topics of interest to that student.  NOTE: During those two-minute daily conversations, the teacher maintains a positive tone and avoids talking about the student’s problem behaviors or poor academic performance.
  • Emphasize the Positive in Teacher Requests (Braithwaite, 2001).  The teacher avoids using negative phrasing (e.g., "If you don't return to your seat, I can’t help you with your assignment") when making a request of a student. Instead, the teacher request is stated in positive terms (e.g., "I will be over to help you on the assignment just as soon as you return to your seat"). When a request has a positive 'spin', that teacher is less likely to trigger a power struggle and more likely to gain student compliance.  
  • Strive for at Least One Daily Positive Verbal Interaction (Fields, 2004).  The teacher makes a point early in each class session to engage in at least one positive verbal interaction with the target student. Whenever possible, the teacher continues to interact in positive ways with the student throughout the rest of the class period through both verbal (e.g., praise comment after a student remark) and non-verbal means (e.g., thumbs-up sign, smile.). In all interactions, the teacher maintains a polite, respectful tone. 


  • Braithwaite, R. (2001). Managing aggression. New York: Routledge.
  • Fields, B. (2004). Breaking the cycle of office referrals and suspensions: Defensive management. Educational Psychology in Practice, 20, 103-115.
  • Kazdin, A. E. (1989). Behavior modification in applied settings (4th ed.). Pacific Gove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Kern, L. & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 65-75.
  • Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67, 173-186.
  • Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
  • Sprick, R. S., Borgmeier, C., & Nolet, V. (2002). Prevention and management of behavior problems in secondary schools. In M. A. Shinn, H. M. Walker & G. Stoner (Eds.), Interventions for academic and behavior problems II: Preventive and remedial approaches (pp.373-401). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.