The Power of Authentic Praise in the Classroom: My Personal Experience

I had a student once, you know the student. The one that pushes buttons, tests boundaries, and always seems to say just the right things to upset you. He was difficult to have in the classroom and a challenge for every teacher, resource aid, and adult that walked the halls of the school. In my attempt to reach this student and use him as a powerful player in the classroom, not a distraction, I found research on praising in a positive, genuine way and the impact it can have on students. 

In short, I found in my research that we should be praising students genuinely, immediately, unexpectedly, and both publicly and privately. It should also be honing in on your own feelings, not said in a general sense. For example, instead of saying, “Good job on your book report” if you phrase it more in a sense of, “I was really impressed by your book report, I can see how hard you worked on it.” it will come across as more personal and elicit more feelings of accomplishment in the student. After coming forward with these findings, I was ready to apply them in my classroom with not only my difficult student but all of my students. 

It started slowly, I gave authentic, specific praise as often as possible, but whole class and individual students. However, I found that it was harder to give this type of praise to the harder students that didn’t seem to naturally follow directions like the rest of the class. 

One day, my particularly hard student (we’ll call him Johnny) was having an especially rough day. On the way out to recess, I saw him shove a notebook I had never seen before into his desk. “Hey Johnny, can I see that really fast?” Instantly he was defensive and hesitant because he was expecting to be reprimanded for it. I reassured him he wasn’t in trouble and just wanted to take a peek at something I found interesting on the cover. 

Right away I saw incredible artwork cover the front. I flipped through a few pages and found sheets and sheets of dedicated time and effort. My initial thought was that if he can spend this much time creating something like this, why isn’t he spending five minutes on his math homework? But then I had to change my thinking. 

“Oh, Johnny. This is absolutely outstanding! Did you create this all on your own? I love the attention to detail you gave this drawing.” 

He instantly was quiet and his cheeks red with embarrassment. I could tell fairly fast that this type of praise was not common for him, he wasn’t sure how to handle it. I knew it was something that needed to become more and more common with my speaking not only to him, but again, every single student I came in contact with. 

I started putting in extra effort into praising my students in an authentic way and started seeing a difference in my students. 

They started trying a little harder. 

They saw the hard work they were putting forth too. 

They started complimenting their peers and even myself in the same way.

Our classroom became an even more enjoyable, positive place. And on top of that, my little Johnny had a different attitude about learning and school in general. He sought to receive praise in his hard work. Don’t get me wrong, we still had struggles and I worked hard to motivate him the rest of the time! But deep down he truly did try to find that encouragement to keep going. He was easier to understand, and I truly found happiness in his drawings, especially when he would create something specifically for me! 

Ideally what I took away from this was that a little more effort in praise can go a long way if we take the time. 

Why I Decided The Clip Chart Wasn’t For Me

Oh, the dreaded clip chart. You know the one I’m talking about. “So-and-so” is being great! Move your clip up! Oh, Jonny, that wasn’t appropriate! Move your clip down!” It’s no secret that teachers have become outraged by these classroom management resources. One quick google search will show you just how unpopular they are. 

The first three articles to come up when googling “Clip Chart”

The first day I walked into the classroom of my long term sub job, I noticed one thing right away on the whiteboard- a clip chart. The public humiliation display. The does-more-harm-than-good tool. I did my best effort to keep the clip chart during my first week taking over the classroom, but I soon realized why it didn’t work. 

  • It was used for negative reinforcement more often than positive reinforcement. It was easier to use it for students misbehaving than to remember to reward those that were behaving. 
  • It didn’t change the behavior of the students who were constantly dropping into the negative. They quickly became numb to it, they didn’t care about moving their clip down, or up for that matter. 
  • I felt like our whole day revolved around the chart. Because I realized how often it was used for the misbehaving kids, I put in extra effort to use it to praise students for good behavior. It took too much time and effort. The best way to manage a classroom is to have an effortless, mindless, mostly positive plan in place. I needed a classroom management plan that was easy and natural for our classroom. 

So what did I do once I realized it wasn’t working? I stopped using it, slowly over time. I moved clips less and less, never making it a big deal or a spectacle that the clip chart was non-existent. I forgot about it and so did the kids. In fact, not a single student ever asked about it after we had fully stopped using it. Even the star students that were always at the top every day didn’t mind me phasing it out, no one wanted their behavior displayed to the entire classroom, including all of our visitors. 

Here’s what we did instead. We started our money unit, so a coin system was easily put in place. Each student had a container for their money and was solely responsible for it. Not very often was I taking pennies from the students, it was used more for positive reinforcement, which made everyone happier. It was incredible the drive the students had to clean up the floor at the end of the day when I would announce, “I have one nickel for every student who brings me ten pieces of trash!” I think we could have won awards for how clean our classroom was each afternoon. The money earned was used to pay for extra bathroom trips, new pencils, and a teacher store at the end of the year. 

We did a group point system on the board. I numbered each group, wrote the numbers on the board, and gave them points for being on time as a team, working together, and having their whole table quiet and ready to learn. It promoted teamwork and gave them an incentive to do better.

What did the point system on the board go towards? Here’s the magic of it- nothing. The points went towards nothing. Once the tallies made it to roughly 10 points per team, I would erase and start over. They were working hard simply for tallies on the board! I had one student ask quietly what the tallies were for. There were plenty of other side conversations happening at the time, so I chose to focus my attention elsewhere. I never heard any questions again after that one incident. 

Since I was teaching first-grade students, passing around a tiny sticker to hard workers was a huge motivation for them. I also kept a box of Cheerios in my cupboard to pass around one Cheerio to quiet, on-task students. After one or two times of doing this, they learned fast. As soon as the box was in my hand to pass them out, every student would be working hard. It amazed me how motivating one piece of cereal can be. 

Clip charts clearly are not a classroom management win. It may work for some and could possibly be excellent personal behavior management tucked away in a desk for one or two students that need it. But as a whole class approach, there are better options out there. Positive reinforcement has been proven to be the most effective for changing behavior, and clip charts do not promote this. Let’s all take a minute to put down the clip chart and pick up a more positive approach for our student’s sake. 

How Vulnerability Lead To My Greatest Breakthrough

Graduating with a teaching degree in December can be a tricky thing. For me, I was in an area with too many teachers and not enough classrooms. While it may be an ideal situation for a school district, it was hard on me for finding work, so my solution was to sign up as a substitute teacher. Within the first few weeks, a principal from a nearby school called offering me a job as a long term sub for a first-grade classroom while their teacher was on maternity leave. I was overjoyed! The job wouldn’t start for a few months, but the teacher requested me to come in a few times to get a feel for the classroom and learn their daily schedule. 

I spent the next two months visiting the classroom about once a week, helping here and there, and getting to know the students. Right away, I could tell they all really loved their teacher, and even though they were excited for her to have her baby, they were sad to see her leave. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but immediately, I was intimidated. I felt like these kids already knew I was less of a teacher and that they would resent me for taking her place. Without even realizing, I started promoting myself to them, trying to prove that I would be a sufficient replacement. 

Every time I visited the classroom I promised them new things. “Guys, when I come to teach you we will do fun things!” My list grew and grew with promises. 

You love legos? Great! I’ll bring legos!

We can color ALL OF THE TIME. 

I have some super fun books that I can read to you guys! We can do read alouds all day long! 

Do you play the violin? We should find a day for you to play it for us! 

This was me showing them that I could be a fun teacher too. I was doubting my abilities, so obviously they had to be doubting them as well. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this would backfire. In fact, it only took one day. 

I walked in on my first day with the highest hopes and walked out at the end of the day in tears. Four kids had been shuttled to the principal’s office before lunch. During reading time we didn’t even make it through the text because there was too much side talking for anyone to concentrate. And walking through the hallways was a joke. I could not keep enough order to keep them in line, let alone quiet enough to not disrupt other classrooms. In fact, another teacher stepped into the hallway and yelled at the kids as we walked by because they were losing control. I was losing control. I knew I was failing. 

I had a 25-minute drive home to think about what went wrong and how I needed to fix it. As I pulled into my driveway, it all dawned on me. I never tried to be their teacher, I only tried to be their friend. And even though I truly believe in having a good relationship with your students and teaching to their needs, I also know that my prime role in the classroom is a teacher. 

Continuing on in my reflecting, I also came to realize that I actually didn’t have to prove myself to them. All of these inadequacies I was feeling came only from me, not from them. That night I sat down and made myself a plan for day two. Something needed to change in order for us to make it through the next 9 weeks together. 

Tuesday morning I started off different than their teacher ever had. I stood by the door, which immediately caught them off guard. I instructed each student as they entered to head to the rug for a meeting, to which most students gave me weird looks or protested because it was so out of the norm for them. 

Once we were all seated, I apologized to them for how the day had run previously. I apologized that I didn’t have better control of the class, that we were not able to learn much from the lack of management, and for the disruptions that hindered our day. I felt vulnerable in front of these first-graders apologizing for my mistakes, but it was a great learning moment for all of us. 

After apologizing to them, I laid out my expectations clear and simple for them. Talking while I am talking would not be tolerated. Walking through the hallways would look like quiet, respectful students who walked, not ran. Further expectations followed but ended with a powerful statement that I repeated to them for the remainder of my time there. I told them that they were the BEST class in the whole entire school and that they only sent me to be their teacher because of their exceptional behavior, and that I expected them to uphold this. 

Most of them did not believe me at first, they were known as a hard class throughout the school and they knew that. But I can promise you, I changed their minds by the time I left them. 

By the end of day two, I cannot say that we had a miraculous change. But I can say that there was an improvement. I took on the role of a teacher and it made a big difference. Little by little, we had better and better days. They were quietly walking through the hallways and raising their hands to speak more often. We still had our struggles and I still worked hard to maintain their confidence that they were the best class in the entire school, even when I was doubting it myself. 

I finally realized I had corrected my mistake a few weeks in as I walked my class to the library. They quietly filed in and followed the instructions of the librarian. Our school librarian looked at me in amazement and congratulated me. I asked what for and she said, “I have never seen this class behave so well, you are doing an incredible job with them! You must have been exactly what this class needed.” 

I had a little smile on my face as I walked back to the classroom. Little did she know, our first days together were chaotic and we hadn’t learned a thing, and it wasn’t necessarily the student’s fault, it was mine. 

I learned so many things from my long term sub job. One big takeaway that has helped me in my teaching is that classroom management is key and that relationships with students thrive after expectations are set. I couldn’t connect with them because I couldn’t gain control long enough to know them. 

I ended my 9 weeks of teaching with some of the greatest student relationships I have ever made. I may have taught them phonics and how to add two-digit numbers, but they taught me how to be the best teacher. And the most satisfying moment was when another teacher commented on how my class was one of the best in the whole school. I knew the potential was there all along, we just all needed to believe it a little more. 

What does your classroom management look like? How do you establish it with each new class? 

Cover Photo: deathtothestockphoto.com

A Lesson We Can All Learn From Mr. Meyers

I had a teacher in 6th grade named Mr. Meyers. He taught at the school across town for years, then transferred to our elementary school the year I was in his class. As sixth-grade students and especially sixth graders in an elementary school, we were determined to run the classroom that year, since we had a new teacher in a new environment. I’m sure all of you teachers out there know exactly what I am talking about. 

We were constantly testing his patience by requesting irrational things like, let’s only do math once a week! And, let’s have extended recess during our lunch recess since we are the last kids to go inside anyway! He was always working out deals with us so that we were both satisfied, such as, if we worked really hard all week on our math lessons, we would have Fridays off during math for free time instead. 

We all felt so in control. Little did we know, he had complete control and was also teaching us life lessons that I still carry with me today. 

One situation that sticks out so vivid in my mind was our seating chart. He created groups of 4-5 throughout the classroom and somehow planned it so perfectly that not a single person had a friend in their group. After making my fair share of seating charts years later, I am still baffled at how he managed to plan this one so strategically. Every single student was angry about the arrangement of the seats. 

I can still name every student that was in my group. David, Kelsey, Houston, Mitchell, and me. All of us had gone to school together for over six years now, some of us even back to preschool. And growing up in a small town, our parents even knew each other on a personal basis as well. 

Yet, until that day, none of us had spoked a word to each other. The same was true for the four other groups scattered throughout the room. The second each of us realized what had happened, we retaliated. We boycotted the seating arrangement, moved our desks on our own to create the new groups that we liked. We refused to learn or listen to what Mr. Meyers was teaching. 

I’m certain at this point, our teacher had felt like he lost control and probably panicked a little as well. But in time, he pulled himself together and called a class meeting. We discussed concerns and issues in a mature (sixth grade) way, then finally came to a resolution that we didn’t love, but we were pretty sure we could cheat the system on. 

Mr. Meyers told us that if we learned how to work together and be friends, he would move our seats. We whispered to one another that all we had to do was act like friends and he would move us. Simple. 

The next day the class put on our fake smiles and acted like best friends. 

“Hey, Kels! Cuuuuute shoes! Wow, you are SO LUCKY to have them, I wish my mom would have bought me the exact same ones! You’re so cool!” This was a very similar sentence I really did say to the other girl in my group. Kelsey and I were not friends. We were different in every way and I truly did not like her shoes. But we had to convince our teacher that we were friends! 

Our overdramatic talking and fake bright eyes were definitely noticed by our teacher. But not in the way we hoped. He knew better. He knew we didn’t just become friends overnight, but that smart man did not say a word. He continued on to let us speak to one another in chipper voices, pretending like we have been besties from day one. 

Slowly, over time, our attitudes changed. Our group would always ask Mitchell for help with math because we realized he was really good at it. And of course, Mr. Meyer had to be noticing that we were using one another as a resource! Look! We’re friends! 

Eventually, we found out that David was excellent at storytelling, although sometimes we questioned how much of it was true. Houston had a unique sense of humor that constantly had us laughing out loud, sometimes even when we shouldn’t have been. And although Kelsey was so opposite from me, we ended up finding out that we both loved to dance. 

The day came when Mr. Meyers announced that we would be moving seats. For a few seconds, the room was still. Silence hung heavy in the air as the class processed what was happening. We were supposed to cheer and be happy! This is exactly what we wanted! But what followed was everyone exclaiming, NOOOO! Please don’t! This isn’t fair! We love our groups! And the kicker is, this was all genuine. We really did come to love the people we were around and the friends we truly had made. 

Mr. Meyers pulled a fast one on us. 

He told us to become friends, so we pretended to be. In the process, we did find great friendship and positive aspects of each and every person. 

The rest of the school year our seat assignments continued to change over time, but our new friends were still there. Even continuing into middle and high school, they remained. 

David, Houston, and Kelsey eventually moved away before high school graduation. But Mitchell and I were still there. After the ceremony when the hugs and pictures commenced, Mitchell and I gave each other a look from across the way, because while we didn’t stay close through the years, there was always a little light of a friendship that never quite burnt out. And we owe that to Mr. Meyers. 

So why am I telling you this? Because my teacher my sixth grade year taught me crucial lessons that I have carried on to this day. 

First, I am capable of working with anyone. I have worked with my fair share of co-workers in a school setting and unfortunately, we didn’t always see eye to eye. But because of one situation in my elementary school days, I remember to look for the positive in others and can make a friend. 

I also learned how to be a better friend, because friendship goes both ways. 

The most important lesson, however, was that he was aware of us. He saw our strengths and weaknesses, then placed us in groups that strengthened each other. He wasn’t just there to make it through the math textbook with us, or make us write over and over. He looked beyond the standardized testing and taught us how to become better humans. Mr. Meyers sent us into 7th grade not only smarter, but more compassionate, more empathetic, and with more friends. 

He taught me what a difference one teacher in my life can make, and how influential they can be to students. Each student I now come in contact with I think to myself, will I make a positive impact in their lives? Or will I just be another adult that gives them a test at the end of the year? How I treat them is ultimately the deciding factor.

Let’s all keep a little Mr. Meyers in us. Let’s send our students on with not only the tools they need to solve problems and take tests but to make and keep friendships, even the unlikely ones.  Let’s make a difference in our student’s lives.

Cover Photo: Pexels.com

Inquiry into Attitudes: Cooperation

This is part of a series of inquiry-based provocations for essential elements of the PYP and the Learner Profile. For more, click here.

As with many other character traits, cooperation is one we clearly value, but how well do our students understand it? For them, is it just the absence of fighting? Or is it something more? This week’s provocation is meant to help students investigate it further for themselves.

Resource #1: What Is Sustainable Development? by World’s Largest Lesson (I plan to begin SDGs provocations after I finish the PYP ones!)

#2: Head Up by Film Bilder

#3: This Too Shall Pass Rube Goldberg Machine by OK Go

#4: Simon Senek on Intensity vs Consistency by The RSA

Resource #5: Flora & the Peacocks by Molly Idle

Resource #6: Officer Buckle & Gloria by Peggy Rathmann

#7: It’s Mine! by Leo Lionni

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Provocation Questions:

  • How does cooperation work?
  • In what ways must we depend on each other in order to cooperate?
  • Why is cooperation sometimes hard? How do we overcome obstacles?
  • How do cooperation and sustainability connect?
  • What is our responsibility to cooperate with one another as families? As communities? As a planet?
  • How is creativity enhanced when we can cooperate?
  • How is productivity enhanced when we cooperate?
  • How is cooperation connected to relationships? To vulnerability & trust?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In Which The 7 Year-Old’s Blog Post Gets More Comments Than Mine #TeacherMom

Last week, my daughter came home commenting about a new bathroom rule at her school: all girls now have to use the restroom 2 at a time due to the fact that girls keep writing on the bathroom walls. As a teacher, I understand why the rule was implemented. As a parent, I understand why she feels frustrated.

Since she just recently asked me to help her set up her own “real blog” (ie, can be read by a real audience), I asked her how she would feel about blogging on the subject. She took to that idea right away — especially once we figured out the speech-to-text feature so she didn’t have to keep fretting about spelling (teacher note: I really like the way speech-to-text requires the kids to pause & reflect to figure out exactly how they will verbalize each sentence).

Once she had her post written, “Fair School,” I, of course, went ahead and shared it with my PLN.

She was amazed to watch the comments pour in, and even took action on a couple of their ideas. She has since shared the post with her teacher, and she plans to try and see if she can meet and then introduce her classmates to their custodian(s) to create more empathy (Thanks, Abe, and everyone else!!)

This has also led to a lot of discussion about how we can inspire people to do good things rather than just try to get them to stop doing bad things. Not an easy task for anyone, that’s for sure, but a very rewarding approach!

Once again, I have found this whole experience to positively reinforce the concepts of digital citizenship, flattened classroom walls, and #StudentVoice. When we provide opportunities for students to share their authentic voices on things that matter to them, powerful learning happens.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

I Was An Interventions Kid

I was an interventions kid.

I was recommended for a program designed to teach “refusal skills.”

I was pulled from my elementary school classroom to talk to police officers.

I was interviewed by my counselor on a regular basis–though I thought at the time that was just because she liked playing board games.

I was an interventions kid.

Though I didn’t know the name until after starting teaching, my higher-than average Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score is one of the reasons I became a teacher. I knew I wanted to be there for other kids navigating tumultuous terrain. The more I learn about just how pervasive ACE’s are, and their profound impact on health over a lifetime, the more convinced I become that teachers everywhere must become deeply familiar with them. 

Where can we start?

 

We can begin by recognizing the seriousness of the issue.

NPR shared this graphic to illustrate some of the many health risks associated with ACEs:

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences — ACE — study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for various health problems later.

As Dr. Nadia Burke Harris points out in her excellent Ted Talk  below,

“Some people looked at this data and they said, “Come on. You have a rough childhood, you’re more likely to drink and smoke and do all these things that are going to ruin your health. This isn’t science. This is just bad behavior.”

It turns out this is exactly where the science comes in. We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children…there are real neurological reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior…

But it turns out that even if you don’t engage in any high-risk behavior, you’re still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer.”

We can work to identify & discuss how it is impacting our local community. 

Here in my state, we are currently facing a youth suicide crisis that has school leaders at a loss. They are desperately searching out better prevention programs and better research to identify warning signs. As we look for answers, I hope that we look to better understand the role of childhood trauma. After all, “An expanding body of research suggests that childhood trauma and adverse experiences can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes, including attempted suicide among adolescents and adults” (source); a person with a score of 4 is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than a person with an ACE score of 0.  And that rate continues to climb with higher ACE scores.

We can reframe our mindsets regarding student behavior.

We can challenge the assumption that kids’ poor behavior is always intentional, willful, or personal. As Stuart Shanker writes in Self Reg:

“The concept of misbehavior is fundamentally tied to those of volitionchoice, and awareness. It assumes that the child willingly chose to act the way he did. He could have acted differently, was even aware that he should have acted differently. But stress behavior is physiologically based. When this happens, the child is not deliberately choosing his actions or aware in a rational way of what he’s doing…because his nervous system, triggered by a sense of threat, shifts to fight or flight. There are some simple ways to gauge when we’re dealing with misbehavior. Ask the child why he did such and such, and if he answers with any explanation — no matter what his rationale — there’s a pretty good chance he knew what he was doing. Or ask him to tell you with a straight face that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. Stress behavior also reveals itself quickly. If you see confusion, fear, anger, or deep distress in that face, if your child averts his eyes or finds it hard to even just look at you, those are often signs of hyperarousal and of stress behavior.”

Kids who have experienced trauma are often in what is known as “toxic stress.” Of course, this does not mean we give them license for poor behavior, but it does mean we can take an understanding-driven stance (see this excellent example which takes a look at when we choose to focus on routine and compliance vs dialogue and compassion).

We can cultivate an environment where kids feel safe. This includes maintaining a sense of normalcy, cultivating self-regulatory skills (art, mindfulness, etc.) & building resilience by helping them to identify their strengths & to develop confidence in using those strengths for problem-solving.

This is especially important because even for kids who have high ACE scores, positive influences can still make a profound impact. As the earlier-mentioned NPR article states:

Remember this, too: ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.

Below are some concrete resources you can apply today in these efforts.

We can own our own trauma.

For the many of us (67%) that have at least 1 ACE, owning our stories and offering our kids hope can be powerful.

I can turn the fact that I was an interventions kid — the ugliest aspects of my childhood — into something beautiful. Indeed, I’m grateful for the fact that when I had a student tell me her parents were splitting up, I could look her in the eye and tell her that it can be ok — not the chipper pep talk of “everything will be ok,” but a glimmer of hope that someone they trust has been there, too, and knows it isn’t necessarily all over.

I’ll close with another of Nadia Harris Burke’s statements from her Ted Talk: “The science is clear. Early adversity dramatically affects health across a lifetime. Today we are beginning to understand how to interrupt the progression from early adversity to disease and early death…This is treatable. This is beatable. The single most important thing we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, “This is real and this is all of us.” I believe that we are the movement.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto