Sep 4, 2011

Accentuating the Positve

The first weeks of school are hard. My students test my limits over and over again. I dish out consequences repeatedly. I can't let up even once in these first weeks, or they will not learn these valuable lessons:
  • Our classroom is predictable (unlike many of their lives outside of school) 
  • Everyone is the same, but everyone is different. I will do my best to be fair--which means that a student with a disability may have different tools for completing their schoolwork than a student without disabilities. However, the consequences for not completing work will be the same for everyone.
  • Some behaviors are acceptable and some are unacceptable---whether in our classroom, on the job, and in society. Acceptable behavior is rewarded. Unacceptable behavior will have negative consequences. 

Todd's book
This past week I found myself falling into a pattern of negativity: "You can't swear in public like that. It gives people a really bad impression of our school." "Don't talk right now. You're disrupting those who are trying to get work done." Every day I found a way to say what my students were doing wrong. I forgot to tell them what they were doing right.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a presentation given by Todd Whitaker.  Todd is an educator and speaker who is spreading the word about what good teachers do. His tips are often simple and seem like common sense; however they are not commonly practiced. During the presentation I saw, Todd talked about this common scenario outlining the way teachers handle disciplinary issues in their classrooms: 

One or two kids act up. The teacher yells at the whole class. Everyone feels badly--even the majority of the class, who didn't act up at all.

He suggested that we change that paradigm in this simple way: One or two kids act up. The teacher praises and rewards the kids who did not act up. Those who made positive behavioral choices feel good. Those who did not are left out.

That simple premise is the foundation for a research-based practice called Positive Behavior Interventions and Support or PBIS. Many elementary schools are trying to stop punishing all students for the behaviors of a few, and are instead setting clear expectations, modeling positive behaviors, and rewarding those who meet behavioral expectations. It is a proven program that literally changes the climate of many schools. But all of the guidelines I've seen are for younger kids. I often wonder: How can PBIS be adapted for high schoolers?

Being negative and only focusing on what kids are doing wrong is a tiring business. They get frustrated. I get frustrated. Everyone feels grumpy all the time. Mid-way through the second week of school this year I was so tired that I knew something had to change. I remembered Todd Whitaker's presentation, and I remembered a lesson from a powerful curriculum called Reconnecting Youth (a research-based curriculum designed to help at-risk students attend school more regularly, improve their grades, reduce drug use, and decrease suicide-risk behaviors.) The lesson involves finding something positive about each individual in class and pointing it out publicly. It's been a while since I've used the RY curriculum with my students, but last week I decided it was time to accentuate the positive. 

I got a bag of plastic silver and gold tokens. I printed out a sheet of memo pages with the heading:

A Token of my Appreciation…
Flickr image credit: WayTru 
Then I hand wrote a note to each of my students about something I appreciate about them. I wrote their name, a note of thanks, and signed my first name. When school started, I handed each student their note and a plastic token, saying "This is a token of my appreciation. Thank you ____ ." 

I'm not going to lie. For some kids it was a stretch to think of what I was thankful about. But those kids are the ones who most need to know that I see them, and that I want them to succeed. Their messages included statements like this: "Thank you for coming to school twice this week and trying your best. I know that if you keep coming you will graduate. I believe in you."

Will it make a difference? I don't know. I can only guess that Todd Whitaker, the developers of RY, and PBIS are really on to something with their idea of modeling/rewarding positive behaviors. So I am going to try to think of other tokens, treats or positive rewards to give to my students in the coming weeks. I don't know whether or not it will make a difference to them, but I know for a fact that it feels better to me. New goal: accentuate the positive.

If you have ideas about another token, treat or reward I can give to my students please share. I'd love to hand out one a week. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.


  1. If I think of something I will let you know.  I'm interested to see how the kids react.  I commend you for pointing out the positive because with a class of multiple students and some testing the limits, I'm sure that can be a hard task.  Keep us updated!

  2. Thanks, Tara! It would be great if you could think of anything at all. I was thinking of Hershey's hugs/kisses one week...but don't know if that's too hokey or personal. What do you think?

  3. I feel your pressure on this one. It is a hard, good fight you are on Jen and the students are lucky to have someone like you on their side even if they don't know yet.

  4. Thanks, Jessie. Hoping they learn fast that I'm on their side...we'll have a good year after that.

  5. Jen, interesting data and links. I'm wondering about the power of peer-pressure to bring about positive change. What if peers were empowered to give some similar recognition to each other for positive behavior that was tracked somewhere visible by student name? I'm just thinking out-loud. Have never taught a day in my life. Or similarly, when undesireable behavior is displayed. I look forward to hearing how things work. Hang in there. *hug*

  6. You know, Ezzy, that idea of peer support is included in the Reconnecting Youth curriculum. There is a series of lessons where the group sits in a circle and everyone must write an affirmation for the person next to them. It works really well in a group of about 10 kids, but I've never tried it with a whole class. That is definitely something to think about... I haven't used the RY curriculum lately because I was bent on completing the whole course, but I can't do that with a large group of kids who need to focus on academic areas in order to graduate. But I can pick and choose lessons to do with the whole group...thanks for sparking that thought! As soon as everyone trusts each other enough, maybe we'll start spreading the positivity from student to student! 

  7. Awesome idea here Jen. This teaching stuff sounds like hard work! Was the gold token a chocolate coin? 

  8. Thanks, Glenn. The tokens weren't chocolate. Maybe that'll be the next treat :-) 


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