I have spent hours observing children in their classrooms or homes as a school psychologist and mobile therapist. Generally what happens is a teacher or parent comes to me saying that the child does not behave. Some common concerns are the child does not listen, talks back when reprimanded, won’t sit still, talks to others during class time, does not stop when told to stop, and will not complete work or tasks.
One thing I have noticed in my observations is that adults unknowingly miss moments when the child could have been acknowledged for appropriate behavior. I can recall sitting in a classroom for 45 minutes in which the child I am asked to observe is cooperative and respectful for the first 35 minutes. During that time, the child’s behaviors are not directly acknowledged, rather, the teacher would look at me with a face or a comment of disbelief that the child was behaving. When the child started talking to a friend or playing with items in his desk, in the last ten minutes of the observation, the teacher would often say “See, this is what I mean.”
When telling teachers or parents that it is important to acknowledge desired behaviors, rather than focusing on negative behaviors, I would often be faced with comments of resistance such as “Why should I tell him he’s doing the right thing, when that is what he is supposed to be doing? “I don’t have enough time to constantly praise him for his behavior, I am busy teaching.” or “If I praise him for his behavior, I have to praise all the other students and that will take up way too much time.”
In this article, I will give my responses to these very comments:
Concern 1 – Why should I tell him he’s doing the right thing when that is what he is supposed to be doing?
Answer: People like to hear that they are doing the right thing. When someone acknowledges their strengths, they feel respected by that person. When a child feels respected by you, he is more open to following your rules. How do I know this? Because I have always praised my clients or students for doing the right thing. They knew I was sincere and they felt how much I respect I had for them. In my career, I have faced very little problems with negative behaviors from children; even the ones that teachers and parents said had the worst behavior.
When you acknowledge a child’s good behaviors, he gets a self-esteem boost. That is a good feeling and they will engage in similar behaviors to get that feeling again. It might be hard to believe, but deep down virtually all kids want to please adults. They want to hear that they are doing the right thing and they want us to be proud of them for making good choices. Adults are the same way. When supervisors I had in the past told me how calm, patient, or diligent I was, it made me want to be that way even more. Because whether we admit it or not, we all like it when someone thinks something good about us.
Also, some children don’t always know exactly what is expected of them. Giving them praise helps them learn these expectations. For instance, if you are a teacher and you want your students to come in everyday, hang up their coats, sit down, takeout their notebooks, and write a sentence about something fun they did yesterday, tell them just that. Review those rules in a short, clear, specific way at the door each morning before they walk in the room. When they follow through PRAISE THEM, ACKNOWLEDGE THEM. Say, you did a great job following the rule. You hung up your coats, sat at your desks, took out your notebooks, and started writing. You should all be proud of yourselves. This reinforces the rule. Overtime they will know it so well that all you will have to say is “Do the morning routine” and then “Nice work with the morning routine.” After a while it will be so intrinsic for your students that the language can be faded out even more.
When trying to change a child’s behavior, make sure praise is specific (i.e.,” I like how you took out your notebook and started writing as soon as you sat down”, rather than just an abstract comment like “good job.”) Make sure you acknowledge your child for the right things much more often than you point out the wrong things.” Children respond better when you focus on their strengths, than when you criticize their faults, just like adults.
If only a few children follow the rule in a group setting like a classroom, then praise those children. This lets them be acknowledged and can cause other students to strive for the same. For children who get embarrassed when praised, which you may sometimes find with older children, try to acknowledge their strengths more privately, like at the end of class when others are walking out or with a note in their test.
While I am providing many examples in the classroom, parents should apply these same rules about praise at home.
Concern 2 – I don’t have enough time to praise him for his behavior, I am busy teaching:
Answer – Yes you do. If you have enough time to reprimand the child for not following the rules or to attend meetings with other professionals to try and figure out why he does not listen, then you can find time to praise him for following the rules. It takes less time to say “You had great focus during math today” than to repeatedly say” “‘You’re not paying attention”, “Pick your head up”, “stop talking”, etc. At first you may need to acknowledge his good focus everyday, but eventually you can fade out the language and just give a look that says I’m proud of you.
Concern 3 – “If I praise him for his behavior, I have to praise all the other students and that will take up way too much time.”
Answer – You are right. You will need to praise all of your students. All children need to feel acknowledged and respected in their home or classroom, and reminded of your expectations, not just the ones with challenging behaviors. While it may take up some of your time to praise, it will take more time to reprimand a child whenever the behaviors occurs, and the behavior may not get better. When you continuously acknowledge the positive, the child will be more motivated to do the right thing; in turn they will get more from your lesson and you will feel more successful.
Following these methods at home will lead to improved behaviors with chore completion, being respectful with siblings, completing homework, and acting respectful in the community. Following these strategies in the classroom will lead to more work completion and more active listening.
When you start following these strategies, you may be spending a lot of time praising, but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages because eventually you will have children who want to listen and follow the rules because they feel respected, successful, and know exactly what you expect from them. These three things are the foundation for a compliant, happy child. You might think, how does she know this? Why should I listen her? Besides the fact that research supports these ideas, I know because it is the way I have always treated my students and clients, and I have had very little problems with behavior in my 16 years in this profession. My students know I care and respect them, they know what I expect from them and they work to make it happen because they want me to be proud of them and they want to feel proud of themselves. They will do the same for you if you use these strategies consistently.
Use these strategies along with the ones I have given in my articles entitled Compliance, Getting Your Children to Listen to You, Getting Kids Motivated With Timers, How to Say “No” Without Saying “No”, Positive Behavior Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum or Children Displaying Challenging Behaviors, The Power of Redirection!, and How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support. If you consistently use these methods in conjunction with one another, you are sure to see positive changes in your child. It may mean that you have to change the way you are used to handling your child’s or students’ challenging behaviors, but I can assure you that it will be worth it.
Taking it a step further…
Use motivational charts to reinforce verbal praise. For example, let your child or student know that he can earn a token or sticker on his chart each time he meets a certain behavioral expectation (e.g., each time you complete your homework, you will earn a sticker). After a certain number of stickers, allow him to do something he enjoys (e.g., pick a movie for the family to watch, spend ten minutes up past his bed time, be a classroom helper for the day, pick a peer to do a drawing activity with at the end of class).
Make the goal something the child can attain. Some children may need immediate reinforcement, while others may be able to earn a certain number of stickers or tokens before earning a bigger reward. Some children benefit from a direct correlation between the behavior and the rewards (e.g., after you complete your homework, you can pick a game for the family to play), while others can wait longer to earn their privilege (e.g., after completing five nights of homework you can pick a game for the family to play). You can adjust the requirements depending on the needs of the child. If the child is not meeting his goals you may want to start out with more immediate reinforcement. If the child is meeting his goals easily, you can add on more requirements to reach the desired privilege. Make changes and modify as needed.
Remember to always use positive phrasing with motivations charts (e.g., complete your homework so you can pick a movie for the family to watch, rather than, if you don’t complete your homework, you are not picking a movie). As stated before, children are much more likely to comply when they know they are working towards something, than when being threatened that you will take something away.
People often mistake rewards as bribes to do the right thing; they are not. They are self-esteem boosters that make the child feel proud of himself. A confident child with good self-esteem will be quicker to follow the rules than a child who feels down on himself because he is constantly reprimanded for his misbehavior.
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