Shift your focus to children’s good behaviour and you’ll find it occurring with greater regularity, says Paul Dix…
Catching children being good sounds easy and obvious. If you are of a naturally sunny disposition, if you bound into work like Louis Spence on acid and your cup isn’t just half full it’s running over then, yes, it is easy. For most people (yes, the grumpy ones) routinely using positive reinforcement can feel awkward. Good behaviour can be hard to notice in the chaos, reinforcing children who are quietly getting on with it seems odd and public celebration of behaviour a little, well, American? It can go against what we have been taught, it can be neither easy nor obvious. After all, weren’t we taught to let sleeping dogs lie, to leave the ones doing the right thing to get on with it quietly? Using positive reinforcement well is, for most of us, a learned skill. Practise it hard for 30 days and it can become a very useful habit. Children like to feel important, noticed and valued. Their self-esteem is built on your positive reinforcement. With each droplet of praise you are teaching them that the right behaviours work. The right behaviours get them noticed.
Our first thoughts when we notice children’s behaviour draw us immediately to what is wrong, what is out of place. Perhaps the ordinary should get our first attention. Perhaps the five children who are waiting quietly in line deserve to be noticed first, the children who are clearing up appreciated and those sitting beautifully given importance. We can retrain ourselves to see the value in ‘ordinary behaviour’. We can learn to reinforce great behaviour and to celebrate behaviour that works.
When children are behaving well, let them know. Mark the moment with a sticker, smile or a kind word. You are pegging the child to their best behaviour and setting the expectation, “Milly, this is you being kind and helpful.” Tell children the behaviours that you are looking for, “I love the teamwork that you have shown one another this morning. In the next hour I am looking for children who can share beautifully.” Display the behaviours that you want and begin relentlessly catching children displaying those behaviours. Be sincere with your praise and it soon becomes more than a technique. The best reinforcement comes from the heart. The more you look for good behaviour, the more you see. Soon you’ll see good behaviour popping up everywhere – it is the self-fulfilling prophecy at work in your own room. There is no limit to how well they can behave. Let your positive reinforcement allow children to feel important and valued, like they really belong. Use it to build trust and rapport. Deliver it with sensitivity to meet the needs of each child. For Melissa, standing up in front of the others to receive a golden sticker is a moment to soak up the admiration of the crowd (perhaps a little too much!). For Ryan, the public praise is difficult. He is no less enthusiastic about the reward, he just doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. Each child wants their reinforcement in slightly different ways. While boundaries, rules and expectations must be consistent, rewards and reinforcers can be subtly personalised.
Your thoughts control your emotions. If you want to be a more positive influence on the children then the first step is changing what you notice about the behaviour and how you interpret it. Imagine you see Charlie painting Megan with the glue (that was easy, huh?). Now, if you see Charlie as a product of broken Britain, a future gangster or even just a naughty boy your thoughts will drive an urgent emotional and often disproportionate response. See Charlie as a child who needs to learn better behaviour, who needs help with his behaviour and your response is more gentle, considered and rational. If you want to stop getting angry then you need to tweak your thoughts. Trying to stop your emotions once they have started is not easy.
Emotional responses from adults confirm that behaviour works. It is counter-productive to confirm to children that behaving badly gets them your time and attention. You are simply telling them that bad behaviour works. Do this too often and the spiral of negative reinforcement changes everybody’s behaviour for the worse. Including yours. Resisting the urge to give first attention to the loudest children and refuse to reward their bad behaviour. Over time they will understand that those behaviours don’t work with you in this room. Giving first attention to children who are doing the right thing also sends a clear message to the rest of the group. It tells them that they are safe. Safe from the dominance of louder, bigger, perhaps more boisterous children.
Behaviour is not learned once. It is learned every day in changing contexts and different environments with different people in charge. The drip-feed of positive reinforcement gives children confidence in the behavioural choices. It teaches personal discipline that can be transferred into any situation rather than obedience to just one master.
I know that it is difficult to sustain a positive mindset on a Thursday afternoon after the fifth child has thrown a tantrum and everyone goes a little stir crazy with the rain battering down. But staying positive is not a personal choice dependent on how you feel each day. It is part of your professional performance as a role model and practitioner. It is a decision you make in the best interests of the children. Shift your expectations up a notch. Give rewards for behaviours that are over and above your expectations. Highlight children who behave beautifully without being asked to.
Done badly, positive reinforcement is a mush of lovely phrases that have very little impact on behaviour. Done well, positive reinforcement is as delicious as strawberry sorbet and for the children, just as tempting. Is that an ice cream van I can hear…
Paul Dix is a multi-award-winning behaviour specialist and managing director of Pivotal Education.