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I am of the belief that positive reinforcement is much more effective than punishment. I believe this because I’ve seen it be one of the most powerful tools in my teaching tool belt. Positive reinforcement works across the board. I’m not saying that positive reinforcement has to be something tangible like a treasure box or a sticker. Positive reinforcement can be as simple as a verbal “great job!” or “way to go!”
Yet some research is showing that we verbally reinforce today’s generation way too much and that even saying such words can foster a sense of insincerity in our kids. Several pieces of research even declare that verbally praising our kids creates negative effects, causing children to feel manipulated into doing what the adult wants them to do and can even decrease motivation and the child’s sense of achievement .(The Hanen Centre, Worth)
Many teachers deal with struggling populations of kids who don’t live in the nurturing environments, where they don't receive the positive strokes needed to increase their self-esteem. Research of this nature draws a fine line between how we as teachers give our students what we feel they need and psychologically harming our students with an overabundance of possibly false security. A majority of kids spend more time with teachers at school than they do with an adult at home, so how do teachers manage to ‘do no harm,’ yet continue to build up students, especially our younger students, who we know need that encouragement, but might not be getting it from any other meaningful adult?
Some evidence is distinguishing between types of praise. If we praise intelligence, children will shy away from taking risks. If we give too much praise it will belittle our children. If we give too little praise, children will not develop a positive sense of self-worth. If we praise certain attributes, children will develop shallowness. If we praise direct qualities, children could develop a false sense of security based on those attributes. The one thing that most research does agree on is that effort should be praised.
But what happens if children DON’T get praise? What happens if none or very little verbal positive reinforcement is given to our kids?
Every one of us is motivated by something. Some of us like tangible reinforcers like paychecks or bonuses. Some like to be verbally commended on a job well done. Our reinforcement might not come on a daily basis, but even if we aren’t ‘praised’ by outside sources, don’t we still reward ourselves for obtaining goals or finishing jobs? Shouldn’t be do the same for our kids?
If I look back to when I was the age of most of my students (second graders) I agree that there wasn’t nearly as much verbal praise as done now in classrooms. I remember it being a REALLY big deal if we got stickers, smelly stickers at that, on graded papers. And when we did, it made a huge impression.
So maybe what we need to do nowadays is be a gauge for our own students. We know each student has different needs. Since we spend so much time with these students it’s important to develop those relationships with them, which will in turn allow us to meet those needs, whether it be for verbal praise, a pat on the back, a trip to the treasure box or giving a little extra TLC. Students still need to be reinforced, but the attention that one craves is not necessarily the same for all.
How do you meet your students’ needs for positive reinforcement?