Student’s willpower and its Impact on Student Learning: The Greeks had a Name for it
By Alan Haskvitz
National Teachers Hall of Fame
for more free resources go to
Perhaps nothing is as frustrating for a teacher than to have to write, “Not working to potential” on a student’s report card based as much on the teachers’ inability to motivate the child as the student’s lack of willpower. To that end, there are methods that can help both parties once common values have been found and parents encouraged to develop the power of will.
This is not a modern phenomenon. The Greeks had a word for students who displayed such symptoms. They called it akrasia, which essentially means the weakness of will or the wasting of time. In fact, akrasia was called the Goddess of Distraction. The Greeks believed that it occurred when someone consciously make a choice that was considered wrong by society. Thus akraisa is the bases for the English word, crazy.
Basically, the factors that contribute to akrasia, such as the inability to visualize long term goals, not being able to delay gratification, impulsiveness, and emotional instability are also those that reflect a child’s home life. Thus the first step is for the teacher to work with the parent. The second step is to seek common values. The third step is to construct a reward structure to help inculcate the new values. The next episode is to take the elements of the curriculum and look for ways to make them more emotionally meaningful to the student. Next, the teacher needs to use small steps to build up willpower. Finally, the teacher must be prepared to accept failure.
One persistent falsity that remains in the education field is that the teacher is responsible when a student does not learn. This is simply not true and cannot be backed up by any research. Even the frequently quoted Piaget indicated that a child learns when they are ready to learn. As such, a teacher can only make the subject matter attractive; the decision to learn comes from within the child. The teacher can only hope to make it relevant. Thus the failure to learn, as every teacher knows, falls at the feet of the student. A teacher who tries to motivate by giving inflated grades or dumbing down the curriculum is not encouraging learning, but encouraging the student to use these reduced standards as the bases for continued reinforcement of the willpower that was rewarded.
It must be reminded that lack of willpower is not lack of motivation. Being motivated is the first step towards creating willpower, but it stands alone as a prod to accomplishment. Motivation must always come from inside or be intrinsic to having a lasting impact, although some people believe short-term stimulus can be extrinsic. The problem with motivation is that it can be seen as an end in itself. This happens frequently in the classroom when a teacher works hard with a student and the child starts to respond only to have child fall back when the attention is reduced. The motivation for the child is in the form of attention and since the teacher did not push the child into being more self-reliance, the next step, building the power of will, was not achieved.
To build willpower requires a pre-commitment to doing what is right. In other words, it is an acceptance of change. Before the students enters the classroom they must know what is expected and thus what is right. However, it is easy to know what is right, but it is far more difficult to do what is right, which is why obesity, illegal drugs, and cheating are prevalent despite overwhelming acknowledgment that they are wrong. So the first step for the teacher hoping to build willpower is to nourish a pre-commitment to a change in values in the student because they hopefully already know what is right. And, that is where the parent comes in.
Major elements of willpower are perseverance and self-control. This requires that the parent or guardian establish in their child the ability to not be distracted, the acquisition of a sense of purpose, the benefits of postponing rewards, and goal setting. Students who lack these basic life skills place the educator in the difficult position of having to teach both the mandated curriculum and promoting needed values. The results are usually less than satisfying for all concerned.
Meeting with parents is an essential part of building willpower in a student. To do so requires a portion of the interview to be set aside to learn about the family’s values. For example, How are rewards used, what goals do they have for the child and what goals does the child have, how much time does the child spent completing tasks, and how do they handle the child’s failure to finish tasks are vital questions for developing a willpower plan. Of course, as is the case many times, the parents who you would like to see most don’t show. Thus, a check list like the one below can be sent home or a phone interview arranged in an attempt to understand the child better and help develop a plan to build willpower in the child.
The teacher should have a checklist with them before they start the conversation.
Here are sample ideas to help structure such a list. The replies will provide insight into the expectations of the parents and values and should yield ideas on the extent of the student’s coachability and willpower.
The response to each of these questions reveals the values the parents have because everything listed here is a learned activity or value. When you are done with the interview you can get a much clearer portrait of what the child values, what they feel emotional about, and their level of willpower.
Let me provide an example. If a parent is not home when the child returns after school the teacher needs to find work assignments that can be completed in class. This is obvious, but by slowly requiring the student to do more and more work at home the teacher is helping to build willpower. On the top of the homework paper the teacher should ask the child to write down the time the lesson started and when the child completed it. This provides insights into the child’s pace, but more importantly, it is building time management skills in the child and this, again, helps with willpower development.
The real problem with willpower is that everybody has it, the problem is motivating its use in the right direction. The pain for educators is that some students use it to maintain goals that are not acceptable. It takes as much willpower not to do something as to do something. To ignore doing a homework assignment, knowing full well you are going to fail the class and have to repeat it during summer school, is a classic study of what akrasis is, and requires vast amounts of willpower. So teachers need to add something to the building of willpower and that it identifying shared values. Without this, there can’t be any progress towards the standards society has placed on the school system.
Since humans have the ability to choose their values and beliefs they are reluctant to leave this solid ground to pursue a different course because they feel have created a system that leaves them comfortable, if not satisfied. Indeed, the older, the more entrenched the values the more difficult they are to alter. It takes a notable shock to the system to reassess one’s habits because people are compelled to support those behaviors that are consistent with their beliefs. In fact, people have shown a williness to die for their most strongly held beliefs due to the strength of inculcated values. Just as strongly, people are unmotivated to support or validate the beliefs that they feel are contrary to their own. Thus a teacher must overcome two hurdles. First, that an established belief is not worth continuing, and secondly, that the new behavior is worthy of acquisition. The former is far more difficult, because it has been established and reaffirmed through the years. A teacher, at most, has less than 36 weeks to create change and even changing a habit takes more than 30 days of consistency. (1) So it is essential that those students who display a lack of willpower be motivated to change as soon as possible making early intervention, as usual, important.
It is to be remembered that one’s values were selected because they did not create harm or a feeling of imperfection. William James noted, “When the will and the emotions are in conflict, the emotions most often win.” So, unless a teacher can create an emotional appeal in the student the pressure to change may result in a feeling of distress as the student makes consistent efforts to change, but does so at the behest of others and not from the student’s values.
The Brain and willpower
Changing a student’s values and building willpower is further complicated by the way data is handled by the brain. Change comes from a conscious decision that is reinforced repeatedly and stored in the renin-angiotensin system or signaling protein. In other words, the more time a child hears something the more it becomes accepted and the more difficult it is for change to occur.
The Reticular Activating System, which is located near the top of the brain stem, compares incoming data with accepted values that have been stored in memory. The system notes what action is needed and sends an impulse to the amygdala, which is located near the center of the brain. Here, the information is dealt with in a friend or foe format. The amygdala produces the appropriate chemicals to initiate action. If the student’s values are significantly challenged, the data is blocked and cannot reach the conscious executive pre-frontal lobes. The result of such value-laden input could result in actions that have no logic and yet be in compliance with that individual’s strong belief about himself or herself. This manifests itself when a teacher confronts a student over an excuse. The child cannot accept the teacher’s values of good work ethics and perseverance since they have never been proven to be of value to the student in the past. This is why it is sometimes difficult for a well-meaning teacher to be successful with students from a different culture or social-economic background. There are simply not enough shared values. Telling a child whose role model may be a drug pusher that studying is the way to a better life finds the message shut-off by the student who makes $100 a day acting as a look out for police. A better way to improve willpower for this child would be to relate to their accepted values, which could be pride, the importance of identity, and peer acceptance.
Most evidence indicates that it requires at least one month of repetition for change to occur, but if the student’s held belief is strong and has been inculcated for years, it could take longer. A child who has failed several classes is going to take more repetition to promote the will to change. The more emotional a teacher can make the appeal, the quicker the change.
Let’s take for an example, the value altering strategies done on January 1st in the form of New Year resolutions. These resolutions take the form of trying to adopt new values and require willpower changes. Unless there is some emotional reason for the value change, the resolution simply will not be met. For example, losing weight and giving up smoking are standard resolutions. The problem is that even if both of these make sense for a longer, healthier life, they require the individual to change their values. This restructuring of their willpower will fail unless the emotion is enough to overpower the inculcated values. This usually involves the self-image which the brain strongly protects as it means the potential end of sugar and nicotine that provide it with good feelings without an undue expenditure of effort.
Of course, motivating a student to develop willpower requires positive emotional rewards. The difficult part is that a teacher cannot give these rewards without knowing the environment the student has experienced. To offer a good word to a child who has never had anything but kindness may not be as effective as offering a challenge as a reward. For example, “This is good work, but if you rewrite it your ideas will be more clear to others,” would be an appeal to strengthen willpower in such a child.
In the classroom, some teachers give out stars, post good work, and praise students to improve their willpower and change their work habits and values through emotion. Unfortunately, it is an often a failed strategy for those who need it most, the poor student. A star given to someone else is not seen as positive reinforcement for a child who did not get one. Posting good work is a good strategy for good students or for a teacher who wants to promote conformity. However, if a teacher wants to improve the willpower of all the students another method is necessary. The most positive one is for the teacher to ask all the students to look through their work and post their best effort. The pressure to produce something thus becomes emotional and the students strive harder to have a posting of significance. The teacher stays out of the selection process. Change must come from within the student if the process for willpower to become developed and the more meaningful the stronger the success rate.
A child’s identity, youthful as that student might be, is what he or she holds in the highest regard. Dr. Maxwell Maltz, stated that people would behave in accordance with their definition of themselves. A student who does not believe they are good at a subject simply avoids the subject or does not try. The reason why it takes remarkable willpower for a student to change this image is because a student’s values and identity are acquired unconsciously based on life experience. In other words, the student might not be aware of their behavior. A child who disrupts class probably does not have a clue as to why he or she does it, but they get satisfaction from the act and it makes them feel good. The fact that this acquired trait came from past experience at home where the loudest voice carried the argument is not part of the student’s conscious memory. To change it, thus means that the teacher must make the student feel uncomfortable when this loud behavior is exhibited. The program that rewards students when they do something right is valid, but it is nearly impossible for the teacher to know what caused the child’s value to manifest itself. So a standard reward is essentially spitting against the wind. It might work, and it might come back at you. Teachers need to individualize rewards based on the child.
Motivation and willpower
Consistency is the key to redeploying willpower. For unless this motivation is in place, there simply cannot be any positive student long-term improvement. Since the child spends just six hours a day in school, the majority of the consistency rests with the parents. That is why it is important to work with the interested parent in a partnership to promote and continue motivating the child.
Of course, the worst-case scenario is the child of a parent who has no willpower. These parents usually show up the last two weeks before the end of a term and challenge the teacher’s grades of their offspring. This is also reflected in the child who suddenly gets the message that for the majority of the school year numerous assignments have not been done and decides to hand in a couple assignments and expects to be passed. Such short-term “sudden” motivation indicates that the child may have mistaken the end as the means and that a brief burst of willpower can offset any negatives. It probably worked in the past, especially if previous teachers have allowed late work or extra-credit work to off-set deficiencies. What the teacher needs to ask is what I am trying to teach the child by allowing these changes to requirements?
Thus, it is important to note the difference between goal setting and willpower development. It is not the setting of the goal that counts; it is the process of setting the goal that a student needs to learn before changes in willpower can occur. However, that goal setting process must be a continuous betterment or improvement, which the Japanese call kaizen, before it becomes more than a series of dead end accomplishments. For example, a student is given a spelling list to learn. The student sets a goal of getting them all right by applying so many minutes a day to study. In the end, the goal is reached, the student feels good, the process is in place, but so what? There must be continuous improvement which means that the student must learn how to use these spelling words in their own life’s for there to be real learning. This goal of continuous improvement is essential to the deployment of willpower. This changing of goals fine tunes willpower.
Frequently there is confusion between self-control and willpower. A person displays self-control by foregoing immediate pleasure for long-term betterment. It requires a rational decision of the type Aristotle would approve. It is a type of willpower, but lacks a basic element and that is that self-control requires you to stop something, whereas willpower may include doing something as well. What this indicates to a teacher is that a student must preclude doing nothing as an ingredient in building willpower, and replace it with a goal of acceptable value.
To redevelop willpower in a student, you must start small, not necessarily young. The teacher needs to set objectives that stymie the child’s ego and compulsions until the deeds are accomplished. Remember that these assignments cannot be dead-ended. They must be going towards an elongation of willpower and the accumulation of an independent process of the extension of gratification. To make the goals realistic, there must be consistent motivation offered along the way. This is perhaps the most difficult task for a busy teacher because it has to tie in with the values the child cherishes and be fair to the others in the classroom. However, generally the best motivator is a comment from the teacher. These are especially motivating if the teacher makes such comments only when appropriate. Too frequently using terms like, “good job,” or “that’s wonderful” take the pride away from students who have to work much harder than others. Thus personalizing the message makes it more motivating.” Bill, you did this work much better than your paper on the canals. What was the most important thing you learned?” provides the student with stimuli and the motivating factor belongs strictly to that child.
Motivation can overcome laziness that feeds on discouragement and often arises from dwelling too much on the enormity of the task. The solution is to break down the task into manageable parts for the student to promote persistence. Once this is online, he or she can more easily develop self-reliance. Once these are present willpower evolves as it builds on the smaller achievements.
Contracts can help direct the persistence process. Giving a student a checklist requires them to redefine time management and provides a basis for developing stronger willpower. Students who do not meet the contractual obligation are difficult to motivate because they know they are not going to get a reward and a bad grade is meaningless when it is one of six on their report card. Having a student design his or her own contract is equally inadequate because it does not realistically challenge the student whose goal is to not be challenged. Parental involvement in such matters is essential? In some cases it is done for legal reasons, since the lack of parental intervention is probably what caused the continuation of the problem through the years. However, for the best results a contract is best written by a group of students for that student and with that student. Peer pressure is very good in these matters, and the student is much more likely to fulfill a contract and develop the willpower to do accomplish that by having to answer to his classmates rather than another adult.
Using Negative Reinforcement
Some students develop willpower more effectively when told they cannot do something especially if it creates passion in the student. Using this negative method can produce exceptional accomplishments that clearly require significant will. For example, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier. It was widely believed prior to this that it was physically impossible for man to run that far that fast. Thus Bannister was told that it was a physical impossibility. He worked against this belief, using his willpower to generate superb conditioning and prove that it was a mental barrier, not a physical one.
A negative challenge can help to motivate those students who are competitive. I tell students that I don’t think they can do a task in the time limit and they work harder to prove I am wrong. Why does this work? Most likely it is successful because students are not empowered in society. Adults make the rules and run the place. Giving an opportunity to prove themselves builds student acceptance of change and thus promotes the willpower needed to overcome other barriers. Some might call it reverse psychology, but regardless, it can prove to be a powerful tool when used correctly.
Although it is difficult to be mutually exclusive when discussing a topic such as the power of will, one element emerges clearly and that is that willpower is not wish power. Wishing is beyond one’s power. Willpower is something that an individual is capable of obtaining, albeit at a cost greater than a wish. Wishing to do well in school depends on external chance. It, by definition, relies on luck and waiting. Nothing can be done to encourage a wish to come true. As soon as there something that can be done by the individual, the wish flops over to the power of will column. However, a teacher can capitalize on student wishes by using them as a motivating initial step towards helping that student convert their wish into reality with willpower.
Conclusion: Restructuring a student’s power of will by working with the youth to change their values and promoting self-discipline is difficult to achieve in the classroom without significant parental help. It is most important that teachers make an attempt to improve a student’s ability to understand willpower and the advantage of being able to use it to reach a positive goal and to motivate them appropriately. Since each child is different, it would behoove the teacher to ask the parents for suggestions on what motivates their child and to see what values are encouraged in the home. Little by little, every student can be exposed to steps on how to reapply their willpower to obtain more viable goals and a more global self-image. The pre-commitment stage is the most important for without this acceptance the brain will simply dispatch any attempts at change to the discard pile. The good news is that when willpower becomes a habit new goals can be reached and maintained. The bad news is that the demands to prepare students for state testing based on the curriculum leaves little time to kindle student motivation to improve their power of will.