Monday, January 9, 2012

the power of praise; catch me being good!

I wrote this over at Prek and K Sharing. Check it out! They are a wonderful group of educators. 

When I first started working in the school system as a Paraeducator, I was right out of college and four months pregnant. My degree is in English, History, and Women's Studies; I had completed one education class, Foundations of Education, a course that focused more on the history and philosophy of education than actual practice.

So there I was, thrown into the school system with no training except my own life experiences, and paired with a third grade student with significant physical needs and behavior struggles. He was also extremely bright and prone to argue.  About a third of the way into the school year, he turned to me and said, quite emphatically, "Why do you always catch me being BAD? Why can't your eyes ever catch me being GOOD?"

Now, if we're being honest, my initial internal response was, "You have to actually BE GOOD for that to happen." What I said was, "I see you do lots of good things. I'm sorry you feel like I don't see that. Do you think we should work on that?" He agreed that we should, and I promised to come up with a solution. "How about for now, we just put this post-it note on your desk, and every time I catch you listening to the teacher, staying on task, using nice words, and doing the right thing, I will make a tally mark. Then if you get five tally marks, you can have a sticker." He thought this sounded great.

I never came up with a more permanent solution, and he never needed the sticker, although I did give it to him as promised. Every time I came and made a tally mark on that post-it, he beamed. All he wanted was acknowledgement of his efforts, because he was trying even if he wasn't always successful.  This strategy worked for him; he argued less and felt more confident in himself.

Leaving this child the following year, in the middle of the year no less, was painful for both of us, but he was ready for more independence and I needed to move to preschool for a variety of reasons. I have always taken this lesson of "catching me being good" with me to the younger children who have special needs, with whom it is so easy to become frustrated. Often times they are so hungry for attention that they will do just about anything, including climbing furniture and hitting friends, to gain it. When we give them attention for positive behavior we reinforce what we want and help extinguish what we don't want. If they are receiving attention for sitting on the carpet or sharing a toy, there's no need for disruptive behavior.

In preschool, though, I learned a bit of a new language. Most importantly was "good choice" and "bad choice." Children aren't bad or good, they make choices just like adults do.  Most of us want help learning from the times we make a mistake, and we all want a pat on the back when we succeed.

Here's an example of a very simple chart you could use. You could even make a page with five of them on it so that the entire week would be visible. This particular student needed to focus on short periods of time, therefore I used one sheet per day . If he was given ultimatums that were too big or too far away, he almost always failed, not because (like some preschool and kindergarten students), it was too far away for  him to remember but because the idea of "being good" for that long felt unattainable.

If you had a smiley face stamp or sticker, you could use that in place of tally marks. You would have to decide if the student received any additional reward for achieving a certain number of good choices in a day.


Jennie said...

You are so smart. I am like these students when it comes to saving money - when I have something to save FOR, it's relatively easy. When it's something nebulous like "retirement", it's much harder to keep from spending here and there. Seems like we are kind of hard-wired to meet close goals instead of far ones.

George said...

This makes me so happy to read about. Lucky children!

If it's something I've learned in working with children for 10+ years, it's that acknowledging the good choices they make is so important.
But I think it's that way with all of us. A positive focus is important. If we have a negative one, it'll do us harm (in one way or another).