Susannah Robbins continues her series of working with children of different ages. This time she focuses on fostering good behaviour, whether in the family or the classroom.

[New City Magazine – August-September 2020, page 20-21]

Before I had children, I was the Interventions Manager at a large high school in West London. My cohort of children consisted of those who were deemed to be at risk of social and/or academic exclusion. I worked closely with children who were school refusers, children with Special Educational Needs and disabilities, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with external agency input, children who were young carers, the list goes on. Through the many differences in their needs and circumstances, they all remained children, and I believed they should be treated with care, respect and love. Too often children and teenagers are labelled, dismissed and even feared, especially those whose daily life is a struggle.

It was a ‘nice’ school, an ‘outstanding school’ to be precise, and well known for its shiny reputation (and extraordinarily good gospel choir!) but the children that passed through my classroom and office doors were more often than not arriving at school having already tackled a multitude of difficulties. We would provide uniform when theirs was ‘forgotten’, we would wash their uniform when their washing machine was ‘on the blink again’, we would feed them breakfast when ‘Mum forgot to buy bread yesterday.’ We gave them the time and attention that children need to thrive. When you are tired and hungry, you’re probably pretty grumpy. The same goes for these children but unfortunately for my cohort some were labelled as having a ‘bad attitude’.

Praise and encouragement at all times

The success of my role was measured against the number of exclusions that the school had each academic year. I needed to have figures that reflected all that I was doing to re-engage our most at risk students – so, yes we had a reporting system and held detentions, yes we signed children up to work with external agencies such as the Drugs and Alcohol team, or the Family Services for long term benefit. But day to day, hour to hour, lesson to lesson, I found that the most effective way to build a positive relationship with my students was to use purposeful praise. It’s no new trick for those involved in education, and in fact I remember my Mum always saying to me ‘praise and encouragement at all times’, but I wanted to unpick this idea of purposeful praise, ‘catching children being good’ and the benefits of this approach over that of the punitive.

Catching children being good

What is purposeful praise? Purposeful praise is two-fold. We identify an undesirable behaviour and, rather than highlighting this each time the child does it and telling them off or punishing them, we actively watch them and praise them for NOT using this behaviour. An example: when I was teaching one boy he would always shout out, it was very frustrating for everyone. Often I would approach the lesson thinking ‘oh no, here we go again’ and I was already fed up with this student before even stepping into the classroom. I tasked myself with noticing and commenting every time that he didn’t call out. It was exhausting but by the end of the lesson our relationship was already much improved. He didn’t feel that I was on his case all the time and I wasn’t fed up of saying the same thing every few minutes. Bit by bit he had significantly reduced the ‘undesirable behaviour’.

We can easily apply this approach to any child. Let’s use biting as an example. If a young child bites when they don’t get what they want – every time that we see them think about biting, but resisting, praise them! ‘I saw that you wanted to bite, but you didn’t! You made a good decision!’ This leads me to the second element of positive praise: the words that we choose matter and make all the difference. Simply saying ‘well done’ or ‘good job’ is the equivalent to using ‘nice’ in an English essay, it is meaningless. Children need explicit feedback on what it was that they did well, so that they can repeat the action and be successful in their behaviour. By noticing them being ‘good’, rather than only noticing them ‘bad’ their self-esteem will soar, their self-worth will increase and they will be motivated, rather than downtrodden and defensive.

Encouraging independence and resilience

We can use purposeful praise to nurture other behaviours too such as encouraging independence and resilience. Notice when our child has been challenged to stretch themselves or tried something outside of their usual comfort zone and vocalise our observations. Praise them for being brave, or for persevering with a difficult task, but we must remember to choose our words with care and make them meaningful. Our children need us to notice their efforts and encourage them to dig deep in the face of their personal adversity.

This is an intensive technique, and we may well feel exhausted after an hour, but positive reinforcement has been proven to be more successful than negative. In her book ‘Connecting Parenting’, Pam Leo says ‘You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better’ – well said, Pam!

Photo: © courtesy of Susannah Robbins

See also:

[See the article in full PDF edition on pages 20-21]

Read the 1st part of this series: Play theory

Read the 2nd part of this series: Learning through play

Read the 3rd part of this series: Baby play

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