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How to Motivate Students with Encouragement

Jordan Catapano

Our relationship with students matters. On the surface it may not seem like it should matter who the person leading the classroom instruction is. As long as they teach well, and know how to motivate students, then relationship is a non-issue.

But this just isn’t the case. When teachers form positive bonds with students, those students feel supported and are more likely to achieve both socially and academically. Teacher-student relationships centered on warmth, trust, low levels of conflict, and positive communication lead to stronger outcomes for students of all ages.

It can be easy for teachers to forget how strong of a role we play in each student’s life, and how important our relationship is to their overall well-being. Sometimes all it takes is a moment for us to share a kind word or reach out to students in a unique way that can make all the difference in how that student feels in our classroom.

Let me share with you four ways I’ve recently tried to positively single students out and encourage them in a way that reinforces their abilities and character.

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How to Motivate Students with Post-it Notes

I keep a stack of post-it notes in my bag for all kinds of reasons, but one of my favorites has recently been to write short, encouraging notes for students. This has proven to be a perfect way to passively reach out to a student and make them feel special without calling attention to them in front of others. If a student has done something well, is having a bad day, or just needs a friendly word, then I take a moment and scratch some encouraging words on a post-it note. Then, when no one is looking, I slip the note to the student by putting it on their desk or notebook.

Warm Fuzzies

When a student needs a more formal positive note, I give them what I call a Warm Fuzzy. I buy puffballs, googly eyes, and glue from the craft store, then glue two eyes onto each puffball. Sometimes I add little feet too. This is the “warm fuzzy” and the effect is quite charming. I also have a special cardstock document that looks decorative and includes lines for me to write a personal note.

When a student needs a positive word, I tape the warm fuzzy to my note, write something that praises or encourages them, and then have it delivered to the student while they’re in a different class. The warm note is simple to put together and send, but has made a big difference in how a student feels!

Call Home for a Good Reason

Often when I call home about a student, the parent says, “Uh-oh – what did he do now?” Phone calls home are typically to report a problem to parents. While that’s a good reason to contact a parent, what if we reversed this? What if we decided to call home for good reasons, too?

There have been times when students did something well during school, and I’ve praised them for it. But it really goes the extra mile when we can add to that circle of praise, too, and tell the parent. No matter whether the reason for calling is big or small, parents and students alike enjoy the kind words and positive encouragement that’s given through such a phone call. When the student gets home, they hopefully have more praise awaiting them from their parents, they know that their teacher cared enough to call home, and a good relationship is established between the teacher and parent. Try this out and you’ll be hooked!

Use Student Work As an Example

Another easy way to encourage students is to take a piece of academic work they’ve done and hold it up as an example to the rest of the class. This has two benefits: First, the student whose work you’re using as an example feels good that they’ve been held up as a model, and second, the rest of the class gains from seeing one of the products of their peers.

When I’ve done this, I haven’t always given the name of the student who created the work – it depends on the student and scenario. But as long as that student recognizes their own work, they are encouraged by the positive attention they have earned. I especially try to do this with students who don’t think of themselves as highly as they could; publicizing their work gives them confidence in their abilities they might have had otherwise. Even if their whole thing isn’t truly exemplary, I strive to find even one portion that I can hold up and show off to others.

We often share kind words and high-fives with students. But when we go out of our way to encourage them with a unique touch, we are building our relationship with students and making a difference in the overall success they could experience both academically and socially.

How do you encourage your students? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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