The Difference between a Motivation Problem and a Discipline Problem | Mindsteps Inc.

The Difference between a Motivation Problem and a Discipline Problem

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about classroom management and discipline. I am the first to admit that this is not my specific area of expertise, however I do want to point out something I’ve been thinking about a lot. There is a big difference between a motivation problem and a discipline problem.

There are many student behaviors that are annoying – heads on the desk during a discussion, not bringing a pen to class, starting out the window instead of getting started on the assignment – but while these indicate a lack of motivation, none of these is a discipline problem.

In fact, if we treat these motivation problems as discipline problems and attempt to address them as such, we could actually become a discipline problem ourselves.

So it’s really important to understand the difference.

According to my favorite definition of a discipline problem by Levin and Nolan (1996) a discipline problem in any behavior that:

Interferes with the teaching act

  • Interferes with students right or ability to learn
  • Is psychologically or physically unsafe

  • Destroys or damages property

A motivation problem on the other hand is much more complex. It has more to do with students who exhibit:

  • Low self confidence
  • Low expectations for success
  • Lack of interest in the subject matter or academics altogether
  • Achievement Anxieties
  • Fears of success or failure

Discipline problems typically require preventative strategies as well as short-term interventions. Motivation problems on the other hand, require long-term, individualized interventions. Discipline problems need to be addressed so that others can learn. Motivation problems need to be addressed so that the individual student can learn.

Since motivation problems generally do not interfere with other students’ learning, some strategies we may use to manage them may end up interfering with other students’ learning. Therefore, motivation problems should be managed individually after the rest of the class has gotten to work.

Below are some examples of discipline problems versus motivation problems.

It is important to know the difference between a discipline problem and a motivation problem because each requires a different strategy. Often, if we treat a motivation problem as if it were a discipline problem, we can actually create a discipline problem.

Now that you’ve seen my examples, what are your thoughts? What are some other examples of discipline problems versus motivation problems? How can you tell the difference?

  • anonymous says:

    You are spot on. Far too often we look for kids to exhibit “perfect behavior”. Sit up straight, look at me when I’m talking, do your work quietly…and on and on. Yet, our environments don’t set the proper tone…they don’t match the pulse of the students we serve and as a result, many students are not interested in what we have to offer and are bored beyond imagination. We. The adults, the teachers, the leaders must do better in order to expect the best. I own that. I’m so glad that you wrote this article. It’s the truth and we need to ask ourselves if we are the discipline problem Jair sure!

  • Thanks so much for this clarification and the specific examples. I will keep this as a ready resource for myself and possibly others, like parents, co-educators, etc.

  • anonymous says:

    I totally agree that the two are totally different, however behavior comes out of lack of motivation and vice versa. Many people I work with say that an ESE student should not fail my classes, however I totally disagree, because if the student is failing because he can’t do the work that is one thing, however many times it is because they refuse to do anything. I go as far as I can go. I refuse to the write the assignment for them. Seriously this is what they want us to do. They won’t even write their name on the paper. They are those students that usually don’t have a good base at home nor any good role models to copy, but this is not an excuse. When we allow this to be an excuse we are doing our students a disservice. They won’t get any compensation in the work force if they don’t follow through and complete the task at hand. They have to learn this at some point in their life or they will be hurting all around because they won’t be able to support themselves and get anywhere in life. `

  • anonymous says:

    My favorite part of this article is this:
    Discipline problems need to be addressed so that others can learn. Motivation problems need to be addressed so that the individual student can learn.

    To me, that’s it in a nutshell. Yes, sometimes they can overlap, but how to handle them does need to be focused on who is having the hard time learning.

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