Praise, Acknowledge, Encourage

A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down. Jon Berry has tips on how to sweeten your sanctions
10th October 2008, 1:00am


Praise, Acknowledge, Encourage

Picture, if you can, this episode in the life of a secondary school teacher; it happened to me many times and I suspect it is far from uncommon. Having eventually lost patience with a particular Year 9 pupil and exhausted every last strategy to make him comply (although it could just as easily be her), I crack and decide that this time it has to be a detention. At the end of the lesson he dutifully brings his planner to me so I can tell him when to serve his punishment.

But what’s this? On opening the planner, I find it can’t be tomorrow night because that’s when he’s in detention for science and the night after it’s with the head of year. Indeed, his punishment schedule leaves few windows to arrange our own liaison.

What then ensues is a grotesque parody of two friends attempting to juggle their diaries to arrange a dinner engagement, until finally we arrive at a mutually convenient time and date. My miscreant cheerily departs, accepting this minor inconvenience as one of the unavoidable hazards of school life. The idea that I have just imposed a sanction that will make him consider his future behaviour is utterly risible.

The story - and you can alter any details to suit your own school’s system - contains a basic truth about many sanctions that we enforce during the school day: for a great many pupils, they just don’t work and, even worse, there is a particular constituency (albeit a small minority) that regards them with complete indifference.

And yet for many teachers, the mechanisms available to them to enforce compliance, deter unreasonable behaviour and punish wrongdoing are, entirely understandably, at the top of their list of priorities. This is particularly true early on in their career or when taking on a difficult class. Often, the necessity of imposing authority manifests itself in the hasty imposition of sanctions that are regarded by children, at worst, with contempt.

Unfortunately, one of the casualties of a system of teacher training that has become increasingly framed by “meeting the standards”, is that the study of child psychology and development has, in some cases, been shunted off into the sidings (this is much more true of one-year courses and particularly in secondary).

How young people see the world and how their jumpy young brains interpret it becomes less important than how to find the magic bullet that will make them shut up and do what you want them to do. The trouble is, there’s no such missile.

That’s not to say that the majority of schools don’t operate a carefully constructed system of sanctions that, on paper at least, has a logical series of consequences that works for a great many pupils, especially if implemented in a fair and consistent way by teachers. But it’s that fairness and consistency that is the key. As an observer of many lessons, I hear the constant complaint that: “I’ve just been given a C1 (amend as necessary) but she’s been mucking about all lesson and she ain’t got one” - and I often think that the pupil has a case. Classroom justice is a tricky beast, but a good teacher has to wrestle with it.

This quest for fairness is at the heart of the problem. Young people crave this as part of school life and, in their undemonstrative way, genuinely appreciate it when it is embedded within it. However, to use a genuine, everyday example, how do we as teachers reconcile a situation where we thank one pupil simply for coming into the classroom without making a fuss, with the fact that routine compliance on the part of the majority goes unnoticed? How can we give a merit mark for giving out the books without throwing them when the quiet co-operation of the majority is not recognised? Only by establishing the fact that you, as a teacher, acknowledge that you genuinely appreciate the efforts of your pupils, in whatever form they manifest themselves, can you create a situation where this unevenness will be tolerated by your classes.

Such latitude may go hard with some teachers who feel that the rod of iron is the only way, but this is to underestimate the ability of most young people to interpret the actions and intentions of their teachers. Don’t forget that part of their job is unrelenting scrutiny of what we do, and they do become adept at working us out.

We face the danger of becoming so concerned with meting out sanctions that we forget the motivational factors of such actions are limited. What really works is acknowledgement, praise and encouragement, and all research and experience points to the fact that the more we load our lessons with these, the happier we and our pupils will be.

Once again, most schools do have such a system in place and most do make every effort to acknowledge achievements. It’s just that in the whirl of the everyday classroom, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that a tiny bit of genuine praise goes a long way.

I’m not advocating manic and unbridled jollity at all times. Above all, I’m not suggesting we use cheap praise and unmerited rewards as a way of placating unreasonable or intolerable behaviour. The best praise and acknowledgement often comes in the form of a quiet comment intended for the hearing of an individual or a brief moment of eye contact to acknowledge a smart response. Teachers have to live with the eternal paradox that teenagers want their efforts acknowledged and appreciated; it’s just that they often don’t want a great hullabaloo made of it. All the same, whatever tactics and strategies teachers employ, the balance of positives should far outweigh negatives, even though there might be some wet afternoons when it might not happen.

Finally, when it comes to praise and reward, as with all things in school, keep to the agreed policy. For many years my firm advice to teachers has been not to use sweets and chocolate as rewards, largely because of concerns about allergies or interference with eating habits. Of all the advice I give, none is disregarded with such cheerful regularity. So, if you have cleared it with your line manager and it is recognised as a reward that is acceptable in your school, then use them if you wish - making sure there is no medical reason to prevent you.

Jon Berry is a senior lecturer in education at Hertfordshire University


- When using sanctions always use the school’s agreed system and don’t make up ad hoc punishments or sanctions of your own.

- Even in the heat of the moment, try to ask yourself whether you’re being fair.

- As a golden rule - never make a threat that you will not be able to carry out. As a classroom teacher, for example, exclusion is not within your remit, so don’t make yourself look foolish by suggesting that this will happen.

- Start at the bottom of the punishment tariff. No matter how cross you are, don’t threaten the big punishment in the first instance - you need to make sure you give yourself somewhere else to go. Escalate the use of sanctions carefully and according to your school’s system.

- Wherever possible, give yourself some “withdrawal” room if appropriate. If a pupil redeems himherself with a volunteered answer or has clearly tried to make amends, don’t be afraid to recognise this.

- If there has been no withdrawal on your part, it is vital that you follow up the imposition of the sanction. Not to do so is to send a clear message that it wasn’t that important in the first place.

- Fairness and consistency, above absolutely everything else, are the key to the effective use of sanctions.

Reward wherever you can

- Acknowledge efforts and give genuine praise. Make a judgment about how public or how low-key you want this to be.

- Try to measure your own efforts: how many merit marks and punishments do you give?

- Think about how you, personally, respond to criticism or praise from colleagues or friends and allow this to inform your practice as a teacher.

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