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The Effects of Motivational Techniques on Achievement and Self Esteem in High Risk Adolescents

Updated on February 19, 2012

Helping High Risk Youth Achieve Success One Step At a Time


At Risk Youth: What Motivates Them?

There is a problem that persists with at risk youth today in public schools and various alternative programs. At risk youth are academic underachievers with low self-esteem in part due to their academic short comings. These students lack the motivation to achieve academically in the classroom. This can stem from so many different areas for example peer acceptance, academic difficulties, and low self-esteem. As seen in public schools these are the students who are continually in trouble inside and outside of the classroom. They are also the students that are seen year after year failing the same courses or all of their courses. These students do not show up for school or classes on a consistent basis. Those students that rise to the top and receive the label the worst of the worst are then placed in an Alternative Education setting. Even with the highly structured environment the same attitudes persist. They continue to lack motivation in the classroom and struggle academically. When speaking to students about school work and grades the overall projection from the student enlightens one to the low self-esteem they possess. This is even maintained by those students that demonstrate a comprehension and even great knowledge in certain subject areas. The motivation and self-esteem to do well in school is not present. They demonstrate this by not taking ownership for their ability to do well by making up excuses for doing well. This helps to maintain a cycle of academic failure and acting out behavior.

There is a need to look at the effect of motivational techniques on achievement and its relationship to self-esteem in at risk youth. Research has been done within the realms of motivational techniques, achievement, and self-esteem. These topics have been looked at individually and together in research. Most of the research looked at different cultures, age groups, and populations. The population that will be looked at is an at risk youth population within an Alternative Education setting. This is an important area to research due to the effects it has on students in an Alternative Education setting.

Overall self-esteem within this population is very low and their success rate in school is not very well either. The discovery of successful motivational techniques to increase student achievement level will facilitate an increase in student self-esteem. With an increase in academic achievement and overall self-esteem the success of the student outside of the Alternative Education setting will increase as well. Most students placed from an Alternative education setting back to the general education setting have a very low success rate. The lack of achievement and self-esteem set the students up for future failure when placed back into the setting or for those at risk students still within the general education setting. Most at risk students are placed in these programs to catchup to grade level and to work on disruptive behavior issues that caused them to fail in the general education setting. Self-esteem and achievement are nonexistent for this population. All aspects of their education and behavior have been related to negative attention from their teachers and peers.

An Understanding of the Operational Definitions

Certain terms continued to come up during the course of research. Self-worth theory states that in certain situations students stand to gain by not trying-by deliberately withholding effort (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber, 1995). Self-worth protective students will show different levels of performance in certain situations to protect the self (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber, 1995). Another term widely used is ego orientation. Ego orientation is how student in learning situations are preoccupied with how others perceive themselves and how they are seen by others (Skaalvik, 1997). This for each situation can be broken down into offensive and defensive ego orientations. This in turn produced self protective strategies which helped them avoid negative perceptions of others (Skaalvik, 1997). Motivation is defined as a function of students’ expectations of obtaining valued outcomes (Brackney & Karabenick, 1995).


Motivation is discussed in all of the research reviewed for this study and plays a central role in the research to be conducted. Motivation is looked at in various situations with regard to the student and the perceived situation the student is in at the time. These situations are student-teacher connection, goal orientation, and individual awareness of self.

The student teacher connection relates to how the student perceives the teachers actual intentions. This translates into the student will be motivated to participate in classroom activities if they believe the teacher cares about them (Wentzel, 1997). This demonstrates that if teachers provide a caring supportive learning environment students will be more motivated to take an active role in their education. "Students who perceive teachers to be supportive are motivated to do well because they experience less distress and negative effect when presented with academic and social challenges in school" (Wentzel, 1997). The researcher has observed this first hand in two different alternative settings with at risk youth. Both students were effected positively by the genuine concern and caring about their future and progress. This increased students motivation to do well academically and behaviorally. It created a trust and respect between the educator and student that forged an internal motivation that was not present prior to the creation of a caring environment. This was also seen in students’ perceptions of teachers from sixth grade to eighth grade (Wentzel, 1997). The role of the teacher as perceived by the student changes from sixth to eighth grade. The teacher is with the student all day in the sixth grade where a relationship can be formed and the safe and supportive atmosphere can be formed. In the eighth grade the teacher does not get the opportunity to know the student as well and the reverse. This does not allow for the relationship to forge itself and that caring environment does not materialize. This was a point of further research that future studies would need to address according to the researcher.

Goal orientation looks at two different types of goals related to motivation task and performance. Task goals are concerned with attaining mastery and improving knowledge or competence (Riveiro, Cabanach, & Arias, 2001). For these students the completion of assignments are seen as an end the motivation to complete the work for the benefit of knowledge. This type of motivation occurs internally and needs to be initiated by the student. Performance goals are those in which the student wants to prove their superior skills (Riveiro, Cabanach, & Arias, 2001). For these students this is seen as a means for obtaining that superiority. These two motivational goals may interact with each other as well. The combination of these to goals interact within the student to promote a self regulated learning (Riveiro, Cabanach, & Arias, 2001). Therefore to increase this motivation the student must already possess these attributes. The at risk student is not outwardly motivated by these internal drives. Due to academic difficulties they rely on negative behavior to account for their poor performance. These goal orientations must be taught to the at risk student and the skills that support those goals. It can be in the form of study skills, self regulation, and rehearsal as well as the use of positive reinforcement to trigger student motivation.

Individual awareness of self is the students motivation to engage in certain tasks is influenced by their concept of self at different ages (Leondari, & Syngollitou, 1998). This is a factor in motivation contingent upon what the student wants to accomplish in their life (Leondari, & Syngollitou, 1998). "Possible selves effect motivation by providing clear goals to strive for if they are positive and avoid if they are negative." (Leondari, & Syngollitou, 1998). The individual is motivated by the self that they strive to be in the future and will do what is needed to achieve that desired outcome.


Self-esteem has an impact upon motivation and academic achievement research has shown these effects through various avenues. These different attitudes would include the self-worth theory, ego orientation, and self enhancement theory. They demonstrate how self esteem can be highly influenced by how a student sees themselves academically and with their peers. It demonstrates that the students will protect how they are viewed by their peers and their status with in the school community. They do this to protect the image they have built through their academic neglect and behavior outbursts. The at risk students whole person is built upon the academic short comings and the motivation to do what they want not what the teacher wants them to do.

Self-worth theory allows for students to withhold their effort in certain situations (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber). This usually occurs when the student feels there is a threat to their self-esteem (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber). After failing on a task threats are made to self-esteem when it comes to an individuals ability. If this occurs on the next task then the doubts about ability mount and self-worth theory kicks in and the individual with draws effort to protect self-esteem (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber). For the at risk student that has experienced failure in the past in front of peers it becomes the natural reaction to put forth no effort to hide the fact that they may need help. Students will then boast about how they could have done well but chose not to because they do not care. This falls into protecting the self-esteem from harm in front of their peers. This action reduces the students threat to self-esteem and their low ability does not come in question. The contrast can be seen in situations where a factor that is not related ability allows for poor performance the threat to self-esteem is not present. Self-worth theory students will perform well due to the lack of focus on ability and their self-esteem is protected (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber). Self-worth protection allows for students to not take responsibility for their failure it is shifted to the teacher or their choice to not do well. In all when students feel that the threat to self-esteem is great they will perform poorly and when the threat to self-esteem is low they will perform well on the task without worry of failure. Additional support lies within the fact that it has been shown that there is a need to protect or enhance self-esteem so that positive outcomes are effected internally and negative outcomes externally (Chandler & Lee, 1997). At risk students will consistently choose to fail in protection of self-esteem because it becomes expected from parents, teachers, and peers alike. The self-worth theory "allows for poor performance after failure and good performance with the provision of a face saving excuse that enabled poor subsequent performance to be attributed to a factor unrelated to ability." (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber). It would be important to create an educational environment that was not as threatening to a students self-esteem that way the student would have a decreased fear of failure. It would also be beneficial to produce an environment where the need for help is not frowned upon by peers and used as a weapon for humiliation and embarrassment.

" The core of ego orientation is that the students in the learning situation are preoccupied with themselves and how they are perceived by others" (Skaalvik, 1997). There are two dimensions at work here self-enhancing and self-defeating ego orientation. The focus for this study will be on self-defeating ego orientation. Self-defeating ego orientation students goals are to avoid looking stupid or negatively judged by others (Skaalvik, 1997). Self-defeating ego orientation will lead to the student finally accepting failure as being fine (Skaalvik, 1997). The student then makes failure a way of life and is agreeable with the notion that failure is acceptable for them and their only option. Another dimension of ego orientation is self-enhancing ego orientation. This ego orientation goes in the opposite direction by demonstrating superior ability and out performing others (Skaalvik, 1997). This could work in a negative way though and could have an effect on high ability at risk students. These students in fear of looking stupid may act out when challenged with a difficult task. This will affect students who were successful in the elementary grades but then falter with the challenges of Jr. and Sr. High school. This is seen with some students in alternative education programs they show high levels of intelligence, but act out when the challenges are placed in their paths

Self-concept as it applies to academics is how an individual views their abilities. This could be a poor self-concept in which the individual has no confidence in their academic abilities (Lau &Chan, 2001). This could also go in the opposite direction of a positive self-concept and the student would be secure and confident in their academic ability (Lau & Chan, 2001). This term is applied to under-achievers and at risk students fit the role of under-achiever in most educational settings. "Due to the failures in academic achievement, under-achievers will lose their self-confidence on learning and have poor self-concept (Lau & Chan, 2001). This fits what has been seen with at risk students in the regular school setting and in the alternative education setting. They have lost self confidence in their abilities and spend little time studying or give up easily. Academic self-concept has an important impact on students’ expectancy of success and will effect their motivation directly (Lau & Chan, 2001). This is seen in lack of caring when bad grades are received and with a decreased interest in attending school. At risk students are used to failure it becomes secondary in nature for them to fail. "Under-achievers tend to attribute their performance more to external or uncontrollable factors such as luck." (Lau & Chan, 2001). At risk students attribute their moments of success to these external factors. Students when confronted about doing really well the week before on a test and poorly the next will say that it was just luck. They try to attribute any academic successes to luck or some other external factor. Some at risk students will only attend school for the social interaction due to their poor self-concept toward education. They become unmotivated by achievement and more motivated by social interaction. They go through the motions class to class creating behavioral difficulties as well as academic failure. "Due to an inadequate self-concept of ability, a low value on academic task and external attribution, many under-achievers have deficiencies in using effective learning strategies and self-regulation." (Lau & Chan, 2001). This is seen within at risk students, they have been so used to failure they have not developed learning strategies or study skills to be successful. They do not know how to effectively use self-regulation either if a choice between homework or going out with friends they will choose their friends. This is held true even if they are halfway done with their homework they will still choose their friends and never finish the school work. "The lack of effective learning strategies directly leads to poor achievement, especially when the students enter high school and need to put more mental effort to achieve." (Lau & Chan, 2001). As before this is seen with the at risk students transition from Elementary and Jr. High to High School. The work becomes more challenging and they do not have the skills to achieve on that level successfully. "Findings in this study also indicated that under-achievers had very similar characteristics as low achievers." (Lau & Chan, 2001). "The major difference between the two groups of students was only found on their intellectual ability." (Lau & Chan, 2001). Even though these students are not intellectually deficient they resemble low achieving students academically. This is due to the self-concept they have failed for so long that it makes them look as if they have some type of special education need. In actuality it is all from their own educational neglect.

Educational Strategies for At Risk Youth

When working with a diversified population it is important to look at educational strategies that will enhance all student performance. Cooperative learning is a strategy that is very successful with students of color. "Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small heterogeneous groups of students who work together to maximize their own and each others learning." (Vaughan, 2001). "Students perceive that they can only reach their goals if and only if the other students in the group reach theirs." (Vaughan, 2001). There are five basic elements to cooperative learning: positive interdependence, promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, collaborative skills, and group processing (Vaughan, 2001). "Cooperative learning groups was found to be a more effective teaching strategy for students of color" (Vaughan, 2002). Students of color also showed greater academic gains in cooperative learning settings than in traditional classrooms (Vaughan, 2002).

Positive interdependence is the driving force in cooperative learning without it cooperative learning does not work. Positive interdependence means that one can not succeed without the others. Each member must commit themselves to the success of the other members of the group as well as their own (Vaughan, 2001). Promotive interaction is the need of group members to be cooperative and collaborative in carrying out assigned tasks (Vaughan, 2001). Group accountability is that the entire group must be held accountable for achieving its goals (Vaughan, 2001). Each group member is held accountable for making their own contributions to the group (Vaughan, 2001). "Collaborative skills requires teaching various social, leadership, decision making, and communication skills." (Vaughan, 2001). Learning these skills will empower them to lead and manage teamwork and assigned tasks (Vaughan, 2001). "Last group processing occurs when group members discuss how well they are doing and what group decisions will be helpful to them and the group" (Vaughan, 2001).

Cooperative learning gives the group and each individual student a voice in the educational process. It gives the student more ownership in their education and it helps to build positive peer relationships. This will give the at risk student various resources to pull the necessary skills educationally and socially that they may be lacking. It can also assist in the rebuilding process when it comes to self-esteem, motivation, and achievement. "Cooperative learning strategies improved student performance in mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies." (Vaughan, 2001). Pretest/posttest means indicated positive gains for both achievement measures in this study of cooperative learning (Vaughan, 2001). This type of learning can be utilized in classrooms with good results especially for a culturally diverse population. This technique has shown tremendous results with students of color and could be successful in a multi-racial classroom.

Cooperative instruction outweighs individual instruction in that student attitude in working in heterogeneous groupings was more positive than working and studying individually (Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Scott, 1978). "Students were more accurate in their daily work and they worked faster when learning was structured cooperatively rather than individually." (Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Scott, 1978). The advantages of cooperative education increased as the difficulty of the material being taught increased (Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Scott, 1978). This exemplifies the type of intervention necessary for the at risk student to be successful where they can be challenged and still rise to the occasion and continue the success. The researchers also state that when testing on final exams and retention tests cooperative learning students scored higher than individualized students on the same exams (Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Scott, 1978). The only downside was seen when taking the tests individually the cooperative learning students did not perform as well. The individualized students held a slight advantage over the cooperative students about 50% of the time (Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Scott, 1978). However the cooperative students gained in the area of positive attitude and socialization (Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Scott, 1978). This in terms of the at risk student is a very important trait that needs to be influenced. Not only do they need to be motivated for academics and achievement, but they also need to be taught the simple skill of proper peer interaction and dealing with peer adversity.


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    • KrystalD profile image

      KrystalD 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      Wow! What an awesome hub. Full of information. Self-esteem and self-worth are so important to the motivation of students. As a teacher, it takes time to see what motivates each student. Some students are much harder to reach. Thanks for the input!

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