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Increasing Motivation in Students with Learning Disabilities


In order to comprehend the unique needs of students with learning disabilities, one must fully understand the process of what can cause a child with average levels of motivation to develop into a student with poor self-esteem, maladaptive behaviors, and learned helplessness. These traits which are commonly attributed to children with learning disabilities, represent an uncommon challenge for parents, teachers, and special educators to provide effective educational intervention strategies. The purpose of this paper is to help the reader to a) gain a better understanding of what events can occur to cause this to happen, b) how to break the negative cycle, and c) how to increase motivation using a variety of behavior modification strategies.

Increasing Motivation of Students with Learning Disabilities

Janet Lawrence
July 1997
EDSP 640-90
Dr. Denzil Edge
University of Louisville


In the general student population, there are typically a few children who demonstrate high levels of self-esteem, self-control, and self motivation. These children can be described as the ones who excel at many of the tasks that they attempt. At the opposite end of this “motivation spectrum,” there are typically a few children who demonstrate poor self-esteem, maladaptive behaviors, and learned helplessness (Arnold, 1996/1997). The majority of the student population will usually fall somewhere between these two extremes. As a Special Education resource teacher, one of the most challenging aspects of my occupation is motivating children with learning disabilities who have developed negative attitudes.


According to PL 105-17, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (EDLAW, 1997)

The term “specific learning disability” means those children who have a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include a learning problem which is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

This regulation also states that a student has a specific learning disability if (1) the student does not achieve at the proper age and ability levels in one or more of several specific areas when provided with appropriate learning experiences and (2) the student has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of these seven areas: (a) oral expression, (b) listening comprehension, (c) written expression, (d) basic reading skills, (e) reading comprehension, (f) mathematics calculations, and (g) mathematics reasoning.


One of the main problems with motivating students with learning disabilities is that in order to meet the criteria mandated by this law, students have to demonstrate a SIGNIFICANT gap or discrepancy between IQ and achievement. In order to establish that a learning disability does indeed exist, the student has to experience two , or sometimes more, years of academic failure. Two years is a very long time in primary education and this delay may actually make the problem of having a learning disability even worse (Levine, 1996).

During those two years, or longer, of academic failure, several things begin to happen that adversely effect positive motivational practices. One serious problem is that a child with a learning disability may develop a pessimistic attitude about learning. A learning disability can’t be seen or felt by the student. The student often misunderstands what the problem is, and is often misunderstood by parents and teachers who are really trying to help the child. Along with academic failures, the student may also experience peer rejection, hostility, teasing, harassment and social failure (Putnam & Markovichick, 1996).


A second serious problem that a student may develop during this period are maladaptive behaviors. Maladaptive behaviors can be described as ways that the child seeks to cope with academic failures (Gross, 1996/1997). They might take the form of disruptive, off-task, avoidance behaviors, such as repeatedly breaking the pencil leads off of pencils in order to constantly spend time at the pencil sharpener ,and consequently less time at the desk doing seat work.

Other maladaptive behaviors might be the opposite, as the student attempts to “disappear in the crowd.” The child will sit quietly and pretend to “be like everyone else,” when in fact clarification or restatement by the teacher may be required for the child to gain comprehension. This student will not raise her hand even if it were a matter of life and death. She will mercifully go unnoticed by the teacher until mid term reports are due, and often the teacher is surprised to discover how academically low this student is.

Some students with learning disabilities may develop such an aversion to academic assignments that they will resort to nearly any type of behavior that will get them out of the classroom. It is sometimes less stressful to sit in the principal’s office or in detention than it is to sit in the classroom and fail miserably on a test.

Over the course of several years, a child with an undiagnosed learning disability may develop a complete repertoire of maladaptive coping behaviors. These behaviors commonly lead to deteriorating attitudes towards school, depression, and plummeting self-esteem (Levine, 1996; Yatsutake & Brian, 1995). Additionally, this child may develop a long-standing negative reputation among the school’s faculty.


An even more difficult problem to resolve is the development of ‘learned helplessness.’ Children with learning disabilities may become ‘learned helpless’ through continual exposure to academic failures. In addition to learned helplessness, they might also become withdrawn, unwilling to approach new tasks, and lack persistence (Arnold, 1996/1997).

This negative affect translates into an external attribution for both success and failure by children with learning disabilities. A child with an undiagnosed learning disability who receives an “F” on a test might say things like “the teacher hates me,” or if he makes an “A” might attribute that to some external factor like wearing a “lucky” pair of socks, rather than on innate ability or extra hours of study time. Once children develop learned helplessness, it might stay with them the rest of their academic career (Arnold 1996/1997).

A study was conducted by Montague (1997) which explored the learned helplessness factor of seventh and eighth grade students with learning disabilities in the area of math. One of Montague’s observations of a word problem test was that the solution time for children with learning disabilities was significantly less than the solution time for average and gifted students. She attributed this to “students with learning disabilities perceive the word problems as significantly more difficult than did their higher achieving peers, they viewed the information processing demands as beyond their capability and, therefore, “shut down” cognitively even though they may have had the necessary skills to solve the problems.” So even if the teachers, parents, and tutors help a student to master basic skills, learned helplessness can prevent the student from attaining academic success.


A classroom teacher or the parent has the right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (EDLAW) to request an educational evaluation by the school district. The initial step in this process begins as a written consent form signed by the parents, then a referral, with 30 days of classroom interventions. Then more meetings will follow as each stage of the child’s due process is followed according to the Federal guidelines established by IDEA.

This can be an extremely difficult time for parents. Most children with learning disabilities do not appear handicapped in any way. Often, they do not demonstrate inappropriate behaviors in settings other than school, leading some parents to be suspicious and mistrusting of school faculty. The parent may have experienced similar difficulties in school, and vividly recalls that negative episode of their life. However, after ‘umpteen’ trips to school on their child’s behalf, many parents will generally consent to an educational evaluation for their child. Other parents are very insistent upon having an educational evaluation right away to find out exactly what the problem is.

One of the hardest things in life is finding out that your child has a disability. My son, Christopher has autism, so I can speak of this on a very personal level. Nearly every parent of every child who has ever been diagnosed with a disability must go through five stages of grief. These stages are “shock, denial, anger, guilt, and acceptance.”

Unfortunately, when a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, the shock, denial, and anger stages of parental grief is often vented towards the school system. This can hinder the identification process for the child to receive special education services. It is imperative that a child with a learning disability receive those services, which includes developing an Individualized Education Program or 504 Plan for that child, and allowing for modifications and accommodations of that disability.

Once a child is evaluated and is identified as having a specific learning disability, two or more years of school failure have effectively doused the child’s motivation to learn. It is very important at this point to try to break the negative cycle of learning, so that real progress may be achieved.


Learning Disability (L. D.) is not a synonym for ‘lazy and dumb.’ Parents should seek information about specific learning disabilities at their local library, or talk to the school guidance counselor, the special education teacher and others to find out exactly what a specific learning disability is. Most people think that they know what Learning Disabilities are all about, but often they are just accepting myths and stereotypes as truth. Many times the tendency is to over simplify the solution to a very complicated disability. Becoming educated about a specific learning disability can help empower parents towards acceptance of the disability and allow them to cope with their child’s disability in a positive and constructive manner (Levine, 1996).

One shouldn’t formulate or express an opinion concerning learning disabilities until all of the most current literature and resources has been reviewed. The field of Learning Disabilities has changed tremendously in the past twenty or so years. There are new theories regarding causes of learning disabilities, new treatments, and new educational strategies being developed even as you read this article (NCLD).

Teachers in the regular education program should also know during this time that a student has a specific learning disability and know what accommodations and modifications are required to meet the child’s educational needs. Provisions in IDEA state that accommodations and modifications which are written on the student’s Individual Educational Program or 504 Plan must be followed as specified in the document (EDLAW).

It is also important for the parents to gently explain to their child that he or she has a specific learning disability (Health Guide). If they aren’t comfortable with this, perhaps the school guidance counselor can help the family come to terms with a learning disability. Only this can break the negative academic cycle that is experienced by the child. Demystification is a process that can be used to prevent or treat a child’s dangerous self-misunderstanding (Levine, 1996).

Children with learning problems need help in developing self-definitions as learners. They need to be able to evaluate and acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses . With a clear understanding of these strengths and weaknesses it can be truly remarkable to observe how well students can help themselves, this can go a long way towards restoring motivation and aspirations (Gross, 1996/1997).

When the subject of learning disabilities is approached in a positive manner, parents (and teachers) who have experienced learning difficulties can offer empathy to the child who is having learning difficulties in ways that can be uniquely validating and supportive. They have a key advantage in knowing firsthand the discouragement and frustration of living with learning disabilities (Gross, 1996/1997).


Most special education teachers are trained in behavioral modification techniques. The crux of their effectiveness in the resource classroom depends on the teacher’s ability to manage difficult behaviors of their students. Many children with learning disabilities spend at least part of their day in the resource classroom, in order to make academic gains in a highly structured learning environment. Motivation is increased through the use of a variety of behavior modification techniques.

Some students with learning disability characteristics do best in an organized environment where behavioral expectations are spelled out clearly and in advance and where consequences are delivered immediately. The main principal behind the behavioral management system is to decrease undesirable, maladaptive behaviors and to increase the desirable behaviors through a system of rewarding desirable behaviors and ignoring or providing negative consequences for undesirable behavior. The learning environment needs to be predictable and the management of the behavior needs to be consistent. The use of behavioral charts with systems of a token economy or response cost and the use of appropriate time-out techniques work effectively with children who have learning disabilities (LDA, 1996).

In my teaching experiences, however, I have observed a few students who fail to respond appropriately to this type of behavior modification. These students seem to become overly dependent upon the behavioral system of rewards, and have difficulty generalizing their skills and behaviors across settings. Some of these students also have difficulty interacting with their non-disabled peers. This is partially due to deeply ingrained maladaptive learning styles and learned helplessness.

It is no mystery to me that a child may do fine in the Resource Room setting and then “fall apart” when elsewhere in the school. Two of my duties as a professional are to motivate students to make gains academically, and to teach students with learning disabilities classroom strategies for successful inclusion in regular classroom settings.

Part of the problem that students with learning disabilities might have is due to the clinical behavior modification style that so many professionals like me use. We choose the stimulus items that we will teach with. We repeat the material over and over until the criterion is met. We do lots of prompting, either physical, gestural, or verbal. Many times the stimulus items are not functional within the child’s environment. We only reinforce correct responses or successive approximations. And LOTS of times we pair tangible reinforcers, such as candy, stickers, toys, etc., with social reinforces. That is the hallmark of effective behavior modification practices. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why our students aren’t making it out there in the regular classrooms, or why the student is not making the academic progress we had hoped for?

Basically, a Resource Room becomes an artificial setting where students learn and develop some positive self-esteem, but it only lasts while they are in that particular classroom. Even with large amounts of collaborative efforts between regular education teachers and special education teachers, for some reason there are some children who do not respond well in the regular education environment.


Robert L. Koegel and Lynn Kern Koegel (1995) have devoted numerous studies to a method of teaching known as the Natural Reinforcer Approach. This is really more of a teaching “philosophy” than an actual set of specific methodology. This approach has been used primarily with children who have autism, but I have informally experimented with this approach with some students who have learning disabilities, with very pleasing results.

In the Natural Reinforcer Approach, children are encouraged to learn from their natural environment and to be reinforced by their natural environment. They are likewise taught how to self-record and self-monitor their behavior. In other words, the children are systematically taught how to be independent learners in any given environment.

Using this approach, the authors state the main components for this philosophy are child- choice of stimulus materials, stimulus materials which are found in the child’s natural environment, and the criteria for correct responses are broadened to so that the child is rewarded for any clear attempt at a response in addition to correct responses. Educators are to model the target response and use the system of least prompts to obtain the desired outcome.

The consequences for correct responding are praise combined with natural reinforcers, such as an opportunity to play with (or otherwise appropriately interact with) the stimulus item. Such direct reinforcers are believed to integrate the response with the consequence in hopes of illustrating how producing appropriate responses can assist in acquiring desired objects and attention.

Another focus of the naturalistic condition is to systematically increase the child’s ability to respond to multiple cues. Research has proven that this type of instruction will improve the child’s ability to focus on multiple relevant environmental cues (Dunlap, Koegel, & Burke, 1981).

I applied this method in my classroom to two 4th grade children with learning disabilities who had severe maladaptive behaviors, such as tantruming whenever it was time to do a math assignment. I applied this approach in a general way to the other children in the classroom, too.

All of the students had some objective concerning money written on their Individual Education Programs (IEP), so I decided to teach a Unit on Money, using the natural reinforcer approach. Please bear in mind, that this was near the end of the school year, and every other approach that I had tried fell short of my hopes and expectations.

In order to make the stimulus items functional and from the child’s natural environment I chose to use actual coins from my own coin bank (I counted the money in the bank every class period), plus sale circulars from various stores located within the community. I allowed the students to make choices concerning which activities we would do for that class period, either counting money or “shopping” from the sale circulars. Eventually we were able to combine these two tasks into one big game that everyone enjoyed.

The natural reinforcer was making purchases with the money when the coins were counted correctly. To allow for self-recording and self-monitoring of behavior, I used behavior contracts that began on Monday and were “cashed in” on Friday. If the student was able to meet his or her stated objective on the IEP, then he or she was allowed to count out enough money to purchase either a soda pop from the soda machine or a piece of candy from the school store.

By using real coins, the levels of student motivation skyrocketed. Even my student with the bad temper became involved and enthusiastic. I made it very clear that I knew exactly how many coins I gave to each child by counting it out before class time and putting the money in small ziplock bags. The bags had each student’s name on it, so if any money was missing, I would know exactly whose pockets to search. I made this all very clear to them at the beginning of this Unit and I did not experience any problems with “missing money.” So my students learned honesty in a very real and natural way, too.

Friday became a big event as students came to my work table to proudly count enough money to purchase their treat. I used that as a performance assessment to measure their progress on their data sheets.

I really knew that I was on to something though, the day one of my toughest students came to me and gave me a great big hug and told me how great it was that we didn’t have to do math anymore!

I just hugged him back and smiled - I didn’t want to let him in on my little secret! He had been doing more math in the past three or four weeks, than he had all year!

I was also happy to discover that students had generalized their money counting skills both at school and at home. Many students had used my coin bank idea (just a decorated coffee can) to make their own coin banks at home and saved their small change to buy things.


I firmly believe that some day there will be a better way to diagnose specific learning disabilities at earlier stages, before the poor self-esteem, maladaptive behaviors, and learned helplessness have an opportunity to develop. The enormous hurdle of overcoming a disability is enough for an LD child to deal with. I think that the Natural Reinforcer Approach is worth investigating as a technique that can be used with all students with special needs to increase motivation and independence, not just those students with autism. As a Special Education resource teacher, I will continue to seek effective approaches and strategies to motivate children with learning disabilities.


Arnold, Nicki G. (1996/1997). Learned Helplessness and Attribution for Success and Failure in LD Students. [On-Line]. Available:

Dunlap, G., Koegel,R.L., & Burke, J.C. (1981). Educational implication of stimulus overselectivity in autistic children. Exceptional Education Quarterly, 20, 37-49.

EDLAW Home Page [On-line] Available:

Gross, Augusta H. (1996/1997). Defining the Self As A Learner For Children With LD. [On-line]. Available:< P> Health Guide. How to Tell a Child About ADHD. [On-line]. Available:

Koegel, Robert L., and Koegel, Lynn Kern (1995) Teaching Children with Autism. Baltimore: Brooks Publishing Co.

LDA : Learning Disabilities Association. Behavioral Management - AD/HD. [On-line]. Available:

Levine, Mel. (1996) Talking to Children About Their Strengths and Weaknesses. [On-line]. Available:

Montague, Marjorie (1997) Student Perception, mathematical problem solving, and learning disabilities. [Online]. Available through the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library at

NCLD: National Center For Learning Disabilities. Information About Learning Disabilities. [On-line]. Available:

Putnam, Joanne.,Markovchick, Kathryn, et al (1996). Cooperative learning and peer acceptance of students with learning disabilities.[On-line]. Available through the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library at

Yasutake, D., & Bryan, T. (1995). The influence of affect on the achievement and behavior of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 329-334.

I welcome any questions or comments that you might have! Please email me!

Web Page Author: Janet Lawrence
Snail Mail: 878 Osborne Road, Hazel, KY 48039
Updated: 10/4/98
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