Focusing on Discipline, Not Motivation: Self-Control for Long-term Success

“I am just not motivated by school.” This is a phrase I have heard countless times during my teaching career. Students believe their poor academic performance is due to motivation and that the students getting good grades are “motivated” by school. This is often not the case; we combat this thought process by defining motivation. 

In the most basic terms, motivation is the desire to complete something. Students may respond, “Well, I am not motivated to be good at math.” Though this may not be what parents wanted to hear, it is a good point. Many students are not motivated to get good at a subject or by school in general. 

School is challenging if you learn differently, and motivation comes and goes based on mood, the weather, and other external factors. Their motivation is constantly wavering, and keeping their head above water is a battle. 

Motivation and Discipline 

The reality is that communicating to students that motivation is the key to success can often harm their development. Motivation is fickle. Motivation is decreased when an individual is hungry, tired, or has anything upsetting. It is not always reliable and may not produce the results that they are looking for. 

Instead of focusing on motivation, focus on self-discipline. Whether a student is motivated or not is unimportant if they are disciplined. When students are disciplined, the tasks that need to be completed will be. Self-discipline is the ability to control oneself, stay on track, and do what one thinks is right, even when facing challenges. From our experience, self-discipline is the most important trait in being academically successful. 


Self-discipline is essential to success in school, but many disagree on how to teach it. Military, martial arts, athletics, and music professionals teach discipline incredibly effectively using very different methods. One common misconception is that the person teaching self-discipline must be very strict. Though this can be successful for some students, this method will turn others off and shut down when used. While we are not experts at teaching self-discipline, we have a few suggestions from those who are. 

  • Model- One of the best ways to teach self-discipline is to model the person you want your student(s) to become. This is not easy on difficult days or when challenges arise in other areas of your life, however, the best teachers of discipline are also those who discipline themselves.
  • Provide Clear Structure- Clear rules and structure greatly benefit students’ success. This includes clear rewards and consequences if the daily task is met. Sticking to the rules created but ensuring they are reasonable and don’t cause students extra stress. Though sticking to the rules created may be challenging initially, students will begin to internalize this clear discipline. 
  • Praise– Praise is a much more effective teaching tool than negativity. When students receive praise, they will learn that staying disciplined will produce positive results and help them achieve their goals.
  • Other Activities- Students must join activities outside of school to promote self-discipline. Students see a direct correlation between success in the classroom and involvement in outside activities. Martial arts, athletics, music, and some examples of structured clubs and activities that students can be involved in; however, there are many more. It is common to see discipline from an extracurricular as the catalyst to self-discipline in school. 

The more students struggle academically, the more self-discipline they need to develop. Though this can be a challenge, take the time to focus on it. Discipline will take students much further in school and life than motivation.

Parenting a child who struggles with executive function can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Let Untapped help!

For More: 

Discipline vs Motivation- How to Leverage Both 

Discipline Will Take you to Places That Motivation Can’t

8 Ways to teach kids self-discipline skills

How to teach kids self-discipline

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