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5 Ways To Motivate Your "Tough" Students (2024)

Updated: Feb 7

Updated: February 7, 2024

Do you sometimes feel your kids don't listen to you? 

Maybe they have one AirPod in and nod along as you speak, murmuring "mmm-hmmm" but you wonder, "Are you actually hearing what I'm saying?" 

Or maybe you feel like you care more about their school work than they do?? 

Let's get straight to the point: 

Is your kid selfish (like all of the time)? 

If you found yourself murmuring "mmm-hmmm" while reading this, you're not alone. 

According to developmental research, this "adolescent egocentrism" is a key part of the individuating process that is later regulated by developing executive function skills. 

In the meantime, you can use their self-centered behaviors to your advantage, through the magic of motivational interviewing. 

Motivational interviewing helps strengthen their internal locus of control through guided questions that help them arrive at the best course of action; it has also been described as solution-focused questioning and using an inquiry-based approach.

Wondering how to do this?

I'm going to break it into chunks for you in this article.

If you have been struggling with trying to figure out how to motivate those students who just won't buy in, do not lose hope!

Here are five strategies I've used over and over that you can start today to increase your student's buy-in to the education process.

What you will learn in this article:

Prefer to hear the strategies instead? Listen to me discuss these ideas with Mike Bergin and Amy Seeley on the Tests and the Rest Podcast:

Watch "How do I motivate my student" on YouTube

How to use solution-focused questions when speaking with your students

As an executive function coach, every day I text each of my students to check in with them about any missing or upcoming assignments.

Usually, this interaction begins with a screenshot of anything I identified as missing or due that night, then a message along the lines of:

EF Coach: Hi (student name), I noticed this is missing. Do you plan on completing it tonight?

Student: Yes

What a "trial close" is and how will it encourage buy-in from students?

99.9% of the time the student will respond “yes” to this question.

That “yes” is your first victory and what is called a trial close in the world of sales and marketing.

The more times you can "close" successfully with a student, the more likely they are to commit and complete those big projects and assignments.

But unlike selling a lemon, in this case, you are attempting to get the client to buy into their own best interest -- their education ✏️

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. -Benjamin Franklin

If you can get the student’s buy-in for that first question, you can get them to buy into starting on the assignment, finishing it, and sending you proof of doing so.

So once the student shares with you that they indeed plan on working on the assignment, your next step is to find out by what time they estimate they can finish it.

Often, executive functioning challenges cause students to miscalculate how long things will take. I discuss this in-depth in my article on time blindness, but regardless you want to be enthusiastic about their response.

EF Coach: Ok, great! What time do you think you can submit it by?

Student: 8pm

EF Coach: Wonderful! Will you send me an image of your submission at 8pm or an update if you need more time?

Student: Yes

Now you are on a roll! They’ve agreed to work on the missing assignment, they’ve given you a time by which they will finish it or update you, and you’ve got them open to the process.

Your next step is to stealthily sneak in teaching some executive functioning skills so that they can begin to use them to enhance their follow-through…

EF Coach: Would you mind sending me a screenshot of a reminder to text me at 8 pm?

Student: Yes

EF Coach: Thanks

If you are like me, you may need to set a reminder for yourself to check in with the students if they forget to get back to you.

This is why I love using Siri on my iPhone and saying something like:

"Hey Siri, remind me every morning at 8:15 PM to check in with my student if I haven't heard from them."

Just make sure you have notifications turned on for the Reminder App. ✅

And hopefully, at 8 pm, they send you a picture that looks something like this:

A text message from a student describing their joy at completing a project with a response from the coach celebrating the good work.
A student celebrates getting their work done ✅

If not, repeat the steps, asking them when they think they can finish it, or use your next session to work on it together if there is something that is preventing them from completing it independently.

I use this process every day and it works magic.

Here is an example of the results you can expect:

A text message from a student describing their joy at completing a project with a response from the coach celebrating the good work.
Taking care of business 🎶 🎸

How parents can use motivational interviewing with their student

Next time your child wants something (like YouTube time or sweets) recognize that need and use it to their advantage. 

You: Do you want to earn 30 minutes on YouTube

Child: Yes. 

You: Do you want to work on your school assignments for 30 minutes to earn half now? 

Child: Yes.

You: OK, great. When your homework is complete OR you do another 30 minutes after, do you want to earn the other 15 minutes of YouTube time? 

Child: Ok. 

Give this a shot and let me know how it goes for you. If you want to dive further into the topic, try the free preview of our course, Semester Success Blueprint.

How to guide students toward identifying ONE thing they will complete

Before ending a meeting with a student I always ask, “What is the ONE thing you want to accomplish before our next meeting?”


It helps them executively decide what they are going to work on next.

When students executively decide what they are working on, they are:

  • More likely to task initiate

  • More likely to believe they can complete it

  • And more motivated!

And when it is just one thing, it creates a low-stakes opportunity for your student to show they are productive (and not lazy and unmotivated like those not-so-helpful people in their lives have been describing them).

When you do this every time you meet with your student, it enhances their confidence and self-esteem as they start to KNOW they can independently get things done.

But REMEMBER, whatever their ONE thing is, it needs to be in their zone of proximal development, or the place at which they can do something with minimal help.

A diagram showing the educational concept of the zone of proximal development in three shades of purple.
The Zone of Proximal Development

So if they don't end up doing that ONE thing after your first meeting with them, make sure you help them decrease the difficulty of the ONE thing in your next meeting.

It's all about approximating toward the goal -- progress, not perfection, folks.

Why celebrating micro-wins throughout your work together is key

Now EVERY time they do their ONE thing or get something done in your meetings, make sure you are celebrating those micro-wins with gusto! 🥳

Executive function skills are a muscle and the more they are worked out the stronger they get. 💪

As an executive function coach, celebrating the small things is like water to the student who has been "working out" trying to meet the demands of school and home, but only hears that they are "not doing enough." 🙁

As a coach or parent, make it a priority to celebrate the small things that might get glossed over when others are over-focused on perfectionism (you should be earning A's)...

Here are some examples of ways to celebrate the micro-wins during executive function coaching sessions or a family team meeting:

"I am proud that you have been going to your EF coaching sessions"
"I am proud that you took out the garbage when I asked you last week"
"I am so impressed that you have been emailing your teachers to set up a plan."

Remember -- no good deed is too small! Whatever you praise, you raise! 🌱

How to ask for feedback before ending a meeting to increase student engagement

No one does everything perfectly.

Even though I try to be as in tune as possible with my clients, sometimes I don't pick up on all their cues or what is going on under the surface.

To address this, I ask, “Was this session helpful?” at the end of every meeting with a student.


This empowers a student to:

  • Provide feedback so they can own their plan of support

  • Use their voice to shape their educational outcomes

  • Feel engaged with their approach to meeting academic goals

Most of the time when you ask, "Was this helpful?" you will actually get the student to start focusing on all the good things they are doing -- confirming a narrative of success and productivity in the mind of the client and boosting their self-esteem.

Sometimes, you will get valuable feedback that will help you improve your coaching skills and enhance your relationship with them.

No matter how the student answers, you win!


The journey to instill effective executive functioning skills in your child or student is a rewarding one, full of micro-victories, insights, and transformative changes.

By utilizing solution-focused questions, you can inspire them to take charge of their learning, increasing their engagement and motivation. Remember to celebrate each accomplishment, however small, and always seek feedback to fine-tune your approach.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, remember you're not alone. There are resources like our free course "Enhance Your Executive Function Skills", designed to guide you through this process.

Or if you find you need more personalized help, don't hesitate to reach out to an executive function coach. The rewards of empowering student to take control of their educational journey are immense, and you have the power to make a meaningful difference.

We invite you to share your experiences, victories, and challenges in the comment section below. Let's continue this conversation and help our students build the executive function skills they need to navigate not just their academic journey, but life itself.

You've got this, and remember, we're here to help every step of the way.

An infographic showing five ways to motivate students to improve their executive function skills.
5 Ways To Motivate Your Students


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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 

With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.

He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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