Barb Cohen

Mom, Am I Disabled?

When the Teacher Insists, “He’s Just Not Motivated”

We must stop blaming the children when the adults do not have the answers.

Posted Aug 26, 2019

"Juan needs to do what I tell him the first time I say it."

"Leslie is often not motivated to complete her assignments. She hurries through and makes careless errors."

"Jeremy is easily distracted and puts forth minimal effort."

"Kayla turns her body away from her tablemates during group work. The perceived purpose of this behavior is work avoidance."

"Nicholas kept tapping on the table with his pencil and refused to stop even after I told him twice. When I sent him to the office, he kicked the door."

Juan’s paraprofessional sent his mother the text. Leslie’s and Jeremy’s teachers put their observations of indolence into Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Kayla’s behavior was interpreted for a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA). Nicholas received an in-school suspension that required an incident report.

These are the comments I read almost daily in my job as a special education advocate. By now, I am irritated, and sometimes enraged, by these observations—but I am not surprised.

I should be surprised. After all, these students have already been identified with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, or emotional disorders (all eligibility categories on an IEP with the exception of ADHD, a disability classified as “Other Health Impairment”). 

Among the few things we clearly understand about these disabilities, we know that they impact the way students process information; they impact students’ ability to focus; they are often helped by multisensory teaching methods and by social-emotional support. We know that they are NOT caused by a lack of motivation. They are not behaviors of disinterest or disobedience. Greater effort will not change these students' brains.

If all the neuroscience research, the psychological research, and the educational research agree that individuals do not choose the manifestations of their disabilities, why do so many teachers insist on seeing willfulness? Why did I, during my near-decade as a teacher, insist that these students just did not care about paying attention, organizing their material, obeying classroom rules ... about succeeding?

The answer, I believe, has three components: ignorance, lack of resources, and insecurity. Teachers and service providers rarely acquire the skills to teach these students. They rarely have the time or the administrative help to address these students’ needs. And they often feel like they face an implicit choice, imposed by themselves or imposed by their supervisors: blame themselves for failing to teach the student, or blame the student for failing to be taught and for interfering with the pedagogical strategies designed to teach the rest of the class.

Most teacher education programs spend little time, often a single course, covering all disabilities. Teachers may graduate knowing that dyscalculia, depression, and autism require interventions and that the interventions differ, but they are unlikely to remember (or have learned) the scope of appropriate modifications and accommodations for each of these diverse challenges.

A toolkit that always and only includes extended time, walking by a student’s desk every certain number of minutes to check for understanding, having the student repeat back instructions in his/her own words, and breaking large assignments into smaller units is as helpful as a toolkit containing a single hammer. As the aphorism goes, every student becomes a nail. The nail that won’t be hammered is simply dull. Never mind the cinderblock concealed behind the drywall and the need for a power drill.

Some teachers, particularly special education teachers, may be arguing at this point that they do recognize the need for a variety of strategies. They understand the importance of a personal connection for students who are easily dysregulated. They recognize that their district’s mandated “balanced literacy” approach loses many young readers with or without disabilities. They acknowledge the challenge of remaining focused in a room of 30 students, interrupting announcements from the main office, a noisy air conditioner, scraping chairs and flickering lights.

They may even notice, early in the school year, that this child with a disability beams with pride at the slightest success. But teachers cannot control district mandates, class size, or acoustics. Moreover, they face a tremendous workload that leaves little time for research, collaboration, or attention to any individual child. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) promises students and their teachers the support to succeed, but it has never been fully funded.

Teachers are placed in a difficult position. They are required to come up with an explanation for Leslie’s and Jeremy’s lack of progress even if they do not have an explanation. They face scrutiny if Nicholas’s actions impede the learning of his classmates. They must describe Kayla’s uncooperative behavior and offer a single sentence explanation. And then they have to provide a solution. That solution can either lay more responsibility at the teacher’s feet, or that solution can demand more from the child.

Most humans (and teachers are human) instinctively place blame outside themselves when possible. Who wants to admit ignorance when no clear remedy is in sight? Who wants to admit failure in one’s primary responsibility, effectively advancing every student’s educational achievement? Frustration and irritation with the student who forces his/her teacher to identify a weak link is a natural response. So is identifying the student as that weak link.

I remember blaming my students for their inconvenient behavior. Their resistance/reluctance angered me. I worked hard on my lesson plans, and my pedagogy was successful with most of the students. Some kids just didn’t want to learn, I decided. In retrospect, however, I realize how helpless I felt and how their failure to progress threatened my feelings of competence.

So what am I asking for? What do the best teachers whom I observe do well?

First, they recognize that their foundational task must always be to create a secure environment, an environment in which students feel safe asking questions, admitting their confusion, and exposing themselves to their peers. Most students with disabilities (and without) shut down or become dysregulated when their feelings of competence and internal cohesion are threatened. They will likely appear to be unmotivated or engaged in “task avoidance” when they do not know the correct next step and are afraid to admit as much.

Second, these teachers exhibit curiosity and creativity. They ask themselves why a child is not learning. They ask other people, both parents and colleagues, what might work more successfully. They watch for the gaps in understanding and they try out different hooks—humor, special interests, multiple modalities—that will work.

Third, they assume good intentions. I have never met a child who started out not wanting to please the adults in his/her life. But I have met plenty of kids who tried unsuccessfully to do the right thing and were told, repeatedly, that they had failed. When a good teacher reads that a student is acting up as a means of avoiding work or attracting attention, the good teacher digs deeper and wonders why this is the coping mechanism on display.

Just as teachers do not want to be accused of lacking the motivation to teach well, students do not want to be accused of lacking the motivation to learn well. Instead of disparaging either party’s work ethic or commitment, please wonder, “What’s behind that behavior?”