Magazine Feature

Just Rewards

Positive discipline can teach students self-respect and empathy.

Twenty years ago, fresh out of graduate school, I started my teaching career armed with idealism. My course work in child-centered curriculum did not prepare me for my second-year assignment: a class of 30 third and fourth graders -- four girls and 26 boys.

"They're good kids," my principal said. "Really. Just a lot of enthusiasm. They'll keep you busy." Every teacher since kindergarten had resigned after teaching them.

By January, I understood the high turnover rate. I was exhausted. I was tired of hearing my own nagging, punishing, angry voice. I was frustrated by my students' behavior, but I disliked my own behavior even more.

One winter day as I drove to school, I decided to change. "I refuse to be negative," I said to myself. "I'm only going to pay attention to positive behavior. I'm only going to say positive things."

I arrived at school, walked into my classroom and created my first positive discipline system. For the remainder of the year, I did not speak another negative word to my students. I recorded negative behavior on a clipboard I carried with me, but I complimented positive behavior.

When Tim threw his books on the floor, I silently made a check by his name, looked away and complimented John on how well he was listening. When David and Mark refused to share glue, I checked their names and commented on Jane and Matt's cooperative teamwork. I kept my checklist to myself, but I put the names of every well-behaved student on the bulletin board in big red letters.

On Friday afternoon of the first week, I pulled out a pile of board games and announced, "Those of you whose names have been posted have shown respect for each other, for yourselves and for learning. In a few minutes, you'll get to choose a game to play for the rest of the day."

Stirrings of rebellion were silenced when I temporarily changed the subject, "But first, let's all work together to plan next Friday's special activity. What would you like to do next week?"

After some discussion, my class came to a consensus. They decided to make a spaghetti dinner in the classroom. We negotiated criteria for participation. "Only 'red letter students,'" I said.

They argued: "But some of us are trying hard and getting better."

I agreed. "You're absolutely right. I'll make everyone who gets fewer checks than they have in the past a red letter student."

Then I declared, "Next Monday's check list starts now." Afraid of silent checks against their names and motivated by the promise of a community project, the disappointed students controlled their grumbling.

Within two weeks, my principal was incredulous: "What have you done? They're working." By the end of three weeks, I felt rejuvenated. I recovered my enthusiasm for teaching. I enjoyed my students. And I liked myself again. With basic civility in place, my students got on with the real work of school -- listening, thinking, communicating and understanding.

On the last day of school, I stood in front of my class with a prepared speech. I began, "I've learned a lot this year …" Judy, a normally polite 4th grade girl, interrupted me midsentence, "You learned to handle really tough kids." My entire class laughed, nodding their heads in agreement.

Positive discipline -- using positive reinforcements to teach children responsible behaviors -- takes tremendous teacher discipline. Faced with demanding, defiant behavior, we can find it difficult to look for and reward positive behavior. The glare of misbehavior obscures our vision, preventing us from seeing small acts of cooperation, bits of appropriate behavior, grains of responsibility.

In my work now as a therapeutic psychologist, I see the value of positive discipline magnified. The most difficult students in our school come under my charge. When all else fails -- when teachers and parents decide children need intensive support because of their behavioral problems -- I enter their lives. My students teach me how to translate basic theory into helpful practice; how to use words, tokens, contracts, assignments and systems to build confidence, competence and caring.

Jake taught me to use a magical question -- a question basic to positive discipline -- "What did you do right?" Jake had been in our school, and in trouble, since 1st grade. Kindhearted and exuberant, he would begin with misdemeanors. Once corrected, however, Jake went from committing minor offenses to classroom felonies. He argued, he screamed, he stomped his feet, he threw things.

By the time I began working with him, Jake was in 4th grade and he was infamous. He routinely spent entire days in the vice principal's office. Both teachers and students expected Jake to interfere with learning. They showed little tolerance for even inconsequential acts of noncompliance when Jake was the culprit. But for the first couple of months, my relationship with Jake was fresh, unspoiled by insults or accusations.

Then one morning I saw Jake and his best friend running down the hall full tilt, scattering frightened 1st graders in their wake. I stood between the two boys and the playground door. I uttered two words, "Please walk." Jake's friend skidded to a halt, said "Sorry" and proceeded slowly out the door.

Jake stopped, stood directly in front of me and screamed, "I wasn't running! You're not fair. You tricked me. You don't even like me. I never want to talk to you, ever again!"

I responded, "We really do need to talk. Let's go to my office." I turned and walked toward the office, motioning for him to follow. He walked behind me, more in pursuit than in obedience, pointing at me and loudly announcing to the children in the hall, "I hate that stupid teacher!"

When we arrived in my office, I sat down. Jake paced as he boisterously lamented his fate: "You're all alike -- all you teachers. All you do is catch me doing things wrong. Why doesn't anybody ask me what I do right for a change?"

His request seemed reasonable. I set aside my irritation, composed myself and asked, "What did you do right today?"

Surprised, he answered, "I didn't do anything right today. You saw me. I ran down the hall. I refused to walk. I yelled at you. I did everything wrong!"

I contradicted him. "You came with me. You could have refused, but you didn't. Thank you."

Jake sat down, silent. I was feeding him a message he craved to hear. "When I asked you what you did right, you told me what you did wrong. You took responsibility. I know it's hard for you to take responsibility, but you did it. I think you can be proud of yourself."

By now Jake was calm and quiet, listening carefully. After a moment, he said, "Sorry. I don't really hate you."

That conversation gave Jake and me a foundation for working on his overreactions. I didn't have to force confessions or apologies. I asked him about his positive behavior. When necessary, I helped him remember good things he had done. Feeling affirmed, he found the strength to take responsibility and mend relationships. Teachers and students alike welcomed him back to class.

The simple question Jake taught me -- "What did you do right?" -- has proven the most versatile tool in my positive discipline tool kit. It works magic, building personal responsibility and repairing damaged self-esteem.

Not all students possess Jake's ability to advocate for themselves. Suzanne was a student whose self-worth had been devastated.

Suzanne's teacher repeatedly chose one word to describe her: "fragile." The first time I met Suzanne, I sat down to listen to her read. A 1st grader with 1st grade skills, she didn't know all the words. I praised her efforts. She scowled at my approval, then reported her own opinion, "My reading stinks."

In each case where children succeeded who were slated for failure, one factor stood out as most crucial to their success: At some time in their childhood, some adult—usually a teacher—gave them a reason to believe in themselves.

She continued reading. As she struggled to sound out a word, I corrected her. She stuffed her entire hand in her mouth and began sucking rapidly. She bent her head to her chest, and tears dropped silently into her lap. I had humiliated her. I tried to take back my correction with appreciation and an apology, "You were doing really well. I shouldn't have interrupted. I'm sorry."

She squeezed words between loud sobs, "You always criticize me." I had known Suzanne for less than 10 minutes. Already I understood why her teacher adored her and felt powerless to help her.

Suzanne's teacher and I decided she needed positive feedback in a form she couldn't deny. We created a no-fail ticket system. Suzanne received tickets for the behaviors she already did well -- for working hard and showing respect. With her tickets, she earned extra time with me to take a walk or play a game or make cookies. We set up the positive reinforcement system, not to reward her behavior, but to show her she was worthy of being rewarded.

Gradually, Suzanne was able to accept a compliment. In time, we gently demanded self-praise. We asked pride-provoking questions: "I think you earned a ticket. What did you do to earn a ticket?"

By 2nd grade, Suzanne had begun to develop pride, but she continued to disintegrate when corrected. She noticed praise but complained that her teachers criticized "a hundred times more" than they complimented her. Suzanne had begun to advocate for herself. She was ready for a changed positive discipline system. Suzanne needed to hear compliments, and she needed to accept corrections.

Every day we gave her a piece of paper with two columns -- one column with a "happy face" icon to track teacher compliments and a second column with a pencil icon to track teacher corrections. We asked Suzanne to track her teacher's behavior. She earned one point for every compliment she recorded and two points for every correction she accepted without crying or running to find me. She understood why she was earning more points for accepting corrections: "Corrections are harder for me."

Suzanne's revised positive discipline program made teacher corrections into a source of pride and accomplishment. Her resilience slowly increased. She made it through days and even weeks feeling proud, accepting praise and making corrections. By 3rd grade she was confident enough to succeed without tangible reinforcement.

While many children share Suzanne's overdeveloped self-consciousness, others alienate themselves by their total lack of it. These uninhibited children live with no awareness of how their behavior affects other people. Like many such children, Jerry suffered from the repeated peer rejection that accompanies acting "too weird." Part of the problem was biochemical -- and would be eased with the proper medication. (Jerry's psychiatrist diagnosed him as multisymptomatic, with Attention Deficit Disorder, obsessive-compulsive behavior and a mild form of Tourrette's Syndrome.) But Jerry also needed counseling and peer support, things he hadn't received much of because of his illnesses.

Children appreciated Jerry's extraordinary drawings, his computer ability, his knowledge of snakes. But they wondered who he was playing with when he ran erratically around the playground screeching whenever he came close to a girl. They stared in amazement when he took on the guise of an attacking cobra -- grasping his hands over his head, hissing and lunging at teachers who tried coaxing him to sit down and work.

By 3rd grade, children began to resent having Jerry in their class. They wanted to learn, and he got in their way. His classmates were glad when he was sent out of class for misbehavior and sad when he returned. Even children who were formerly his good friends found it embarrassing to sit or play with him.

Jerry felt the exclusion. He talked about feeling weird and stupid. His mother told his teachers that he sobbed himself to sleep at night, saying over and over, "I wish I would die. I wish I would die. I wish I would die."

Although he received constant individual attention from adults, Jerry didn't need our appreciation. He needed positive attention from other children. We looked for a way to get him what he needed.

Jerry's teacher and I met with his parents. We came up with a plan. Jerry's teacher read Eagle Eyes, a book by Jeanne Gebert about a boy with behavioral difficulties, to the class. The book grabbed Jerry's attention. At the end of the story, he blurted out, "That kid's like me!"

The next day his teacher began reading Everything I Do You Blame on Me, by Allyson Aborn. Over the next two days, while his teacher read this story about a child's struggles to gain self-control, Jerry interrupted at opportune times -- "That's me!" and "Me, too!"

Following the readings, the teacher explained to the class that there are complicated medical reasons for some children's behavior. She explained that some children have disabilities that make it very hard for them to pay attention and sit still, or to control their emotions and their actions. She explained that these smart, well-meaning, creative children need patience and acceptance. A friend of Jerry's volunteered: "Jerry really is like that." His classmates nodded in agreement.

The next morning, we surprised Jerry and his class with a new positive discipline system. We hoped our approach would encourage tolerance for Jerry's difficulties and help Jerry practice appropriate behaviors.

Jerry's whole class operated on a marble reinforcement system. When his teacher wanted to reward the class for doing well, she placed a marble in a cup. When the cup was full, the class earned an extra recess or special activity.

We introduced a parallel positive reinforcement system for Jerry, giving him the opportunity to earn extra marbles for the whole class, rather than individual rewards for himself.

Children began encouraging him to behave appropriately and praising him when he did so. They wanted him to stay in class and expressed sadness when he left. They took greater notice of his positive behavior. His friends felt less embarrassed. They began playing with him again and sitting with him at lunch. The sting of rejection diminished.

As we worked to restore Jerry's self-esteem and awaken his classmates' empathy, his psychiatrist worked diligently to balance his complicated biochemistry. Jerry was lucky -- medication proved helpful. He began to see the effects of his behavior. His classmates had a new friend.

Whatever words we use or technique we employ, positive discipline nourishes children on a daily dose of caring. Positive discipline isn't a quick fix; it's long-term work with no sure outcomes. We don't always see the results of our work in one day or even one year. Despite discouragement, we have to believe our students will carry with them the message we deliver: You are a good person, worthy of self-respect and capable of self-discipline.

A study done on the island of Kauai confirms what a difference a single adult who feeds children messages of appreciation can make. Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith studied 225 high-risk children (children born into poverty and abuse) from birth until they were in their thirties. They report that one-third of these children grew "into competent young adults who loved well, worked well, and played well."

In each case where children succeeded who were slated for failure, one factor stood out as most crucial to their success: At some time in their childhood, some adult—usually a teacher—gave them a reason to believe in themselves.

Jake visited our school recently. He's in high school now and on the honor roll. We joked about his outrageous behavior. He assured me, "That's all in the past, Nina."

Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

    New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

    Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

    Sign Up!