Principals everywhere know that students who are motivated to do well in school usually do well in school.

While “doing well in school” can mean lots of things (not everyone, after all, can be at the top of their graduating class), highly school-motivated students often do things we know will serve them well in the world beyond school. They come in early and/or stay late for help, they focus in their classes, they use multiple approaches to solve problems, and so on.

Accordingly, it’s easy to be confident in such students’ abilities to contribute productively and succeed later in their lives, no matter how their transcripts turn out. (When was the last time you expressed gratitude to a co-worker or family member for their fine secondary school GPA? More likely, you thanked them for going over and above some expectation—a feat that success-motivated people often find easy.)

Role of the Principal

Since healthy academic motivation generates so many desired performance byproducts, it makes sense for principals to see that their educators spend time, energy, and resources finding effective ways to keep their students motivated.

Getting motivation to actually happen, however, is another matter entirely, especially when the tough issues of academics can be so consuming. When you throw in the combination of social-emotional factors that contribute to humans’ motivation—and the fact that schools work with developing humans—the task can swiftly move from complex to outright daunting.

Applying Research to Motivation

To aid educators in creating effective student-motivating strategies and actions, Minneapolis-based Search Institute embraced the complexity of such social-emotional factors as it designed its REACH Framework. Built on a wide-ranging body of research in developmental psychology, REACH (relationships, effort, aspirations, cognition, and heart—five specific strands of motivational research and practical approaches) seeks to provide educators with actionable information and to give students the tools and motivational strength they’ll need to overcome setbacks. REACH resources include aligned instructional assets, a student survey, and professional learning opportunities.

The foundation of the REACH Framework is relationships. Since humans’ motivation and perseverance is affected so strongly by our relationships with one another, the REACH Framework treats these developmental relationships as an “active ingredient” to motivation. Research literature speaks definitively on this: Young people with confirmed high-quality relationships make healthier choices and develop more success-directed attitudes throughout their lives—including increased motivation in school.

Since its development in 2013, the REACH Survey has been pilot-tested in 22 schools with more than 5,000 sixth- to 12th-grade students. The survey helps take some of the guesswork out of what motivates students. It also provides a sound and actionable report of a school’s reality, allowing administrators and practitioners to design data-driven courses to help strengthen students’ academic motivation.

Over the past two years, the REACH research, resources, and professional development have been prototyped intensively by a very diverse set of partnering schools in Search Institute’s home state of Minnesota. The urban, rural, private, and public (traditional and charter) schools in this group appear at all points across socioeconomic, racial, and social-emotional diversity spectra, allowing Search Institute to continually and comprehensively evaluate the effectiveness of its REACH resources and implementation approaches.

One School’s REACH Journey

At Risen Christ Catholic School in south Minneapolis, a highly diverse dual-language immersion school, Dean of Students James Nelson made addressing motivation a school priority after staff noticed a drop in middle-schoolers’ effort and perseverance.

After seeking a professional development program that would help the staff understand how to motivate their students—95 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and more than 90 percent of whom qualify for ELL services—Nelson and his team arranged to make the REACH Framework a focus of his school’s professional development over the 2016–17 school year.

To accommodate the necessary professional learning, Search Institute worked with the school to integrate workshop time into the school’s existing professional development structure. This allowed staff to continually develop their understanding of the REACH research and resources throughout the year. The middle school team built practices suggested by the REACH Framework into their everyday instructional approaches, in addition to setting aside an hour every other Thursday morning to have students focus on REACH anchor activities (hands-on activities or projects that reveal relationship-related information) in their classrooms.

It didn’t take long to see the REACH work having an effect on the kids. As students began working through their first anchor activity, “Identifying Sparks” (from the REACH Framework’s “heart” category, which helps teachers accelerate relationship building by identifying students’ personal passions or “sparks”), the teaching staff immediately noted the students’ enthusiasm and excitement while talking about their interests. The middle school team then built on this excitement by designing a display for students to share their sparks with each other at a “spark park” in one of the school’s central hallways, located where students and teachers could readily stop to learn more about pupils.

By the school year’s midway point, Nelson reported that his staff members had noticed a notable increase in students’ motivation from the previous year and that the students had begun looking forward to REACH Thursdays.

Next Steps for School Leaders

For leaders who are interested in improving their students’ motivation but who don’t currently have the professional development resources to implement full initiatives like REACH, building stronger teacher-student and student-student relationships is the single best place to start, Search Institute’s research suggests. One starting point could be consulting professional development resources such as the Search Institute’s recent publication, Relationships First: Creating Connections That Help Young People Thrive (available for free at

Schools interested in going deeper on research-based approaches to improving student motivation, like Nelson, can explore options at Search Institute’s REACH website at There, school leaders can get more information about the REACH Survey, view sample REACH anchor activities, see a chapter from the REACH Strategies Guidebook, and gain access to various on-site and off-site professional development opportunities for interested staff.

Eric Kalenze is director of education solutions at Search Institute in Minneapolis, MN. 

Making It Work

  • Show that relationships matter. As a building leader, model the types of motivating relationships you want to see between teachers and kids. Regularly show students how much you care about their success. Try telling certain students why you have high expectations for them (regarding academic habits, behavior, etc.), then check in later to converse about whether the expectations are being met or not. Sit down with a student (or group of students) in the library to help them work out problems, or show students you value their voice by letting them lead on something.
  • Take time to understand the sources of low motivation. Does the student believe that her efforts might not make a difference due to personal beliefs about her ability level and potential? Might a student be lacking aspirations or targets to aim for? Make a point to understand which motivational keys might be missing. Use this information to determine the motivational approach you use.
  • Consider a schoolwide plan to comprehensively improve student motivation. To begin, coordinate a staff discussion around the question of student motivation, perhaps starting with having staff members estimate the percentages of their students who fall into these categories: highly motivated, motivated, unmotivated, and highly unmotivated. Such discussions can get teachers thinking about the root causes of motivation issues they observe and get them working together toward whole-school messaging, student support resources, and expectation policies to build motivation across the school.