Want to win big? Then target the positives

18th April 2014 at 01:00
Determination to battle bad behaviour means that the good is often overlooked. An upbeat approach can make all the difference

I'm usually a careful driver, but a few years ago I incurred a number of speeding fines and nearly lost my licence. The government had introduced changeable speed zones and, for a few years, it made a ton of revenue from hapless drivers like me, who were too preoccupied to notice the shift in speed limit.

As well as causing me to consider my impending status as a pedestrian, this scenario also made me think about the ways we try to encourage good behaviour. We expend huge amounts of energy warning against and punishing bad conduct - totting up points and dealing out unpleasant repercussions. But if we are aiming for the positive, why do we concentrate on the negative? In many schools, good behaviour is expected to be the standard and as such does not warrant rewarding. Academic achievement is celebrated, but when it comes to behaviour, students get a reaction only when they step out of line.

Look on the bright side

Thankfully, there are schools that do put resources into positive behaviour management. One secondary I worked in did this better than most. Its staff was a mix of new and experienced teachers; some who were stern and others who were easy-going. The school leaders had previously allowed individual teachers to decide what sort of behaviour warranted a punishment and how severe that punishment should be. As a result, expectations were unclear and inconsistent. The system tended to be punitive and failed to change negative student conduct for much more than a day at a time.

Things began to improve, however, with the introduction of a school-wide system that sought to reward positive behaviour and give early warning of punishments in the hope that they could be avoided altogether.

Each teacher was given two pads of coloured slips: a blue pad of "commendations" and a pink pad of "infringements". When students reached five commendations they could exchange the slips for small rewards - a certificate for the first five, then more substantial prizes as the commendations stacked up. When they reached five infringements they exchanged the slips for afternoon detention.

It was my job as a house director to keep a tally of the infringements of the boys in my house. When one of them reached four infringements, they received an early warning in the form of a chat with me. I allowed students to choose how to manage their rewards and punishments from a range of carefully considered options. Some were given the chance to sacrifice a blue slip to cancel a pink slip; for others, a fortnight of infringement-free behaviour could wipe out one pink slip.

The beauty of the system was that it provided just the right amount of leverage in each case. What worked for some did not work for others. Interestingly, very few students chose to sacrifice their commendations, instead preferring to "ride it out" with four infringements for as long as they could. What it told me was that the majority craved positive reinforcement more than they feared punishment. The dreaded chats soon became discussions about the most effective self-management strategies.

Control yourself

The fact that this self-management occurred under the threat of punishment is significant. Just as I adapted my driving behaviour under the threat of losing my licence (and using reminder Post-it notes on my dashboard), the students reacted to the risk of detention by moderating their actions. So although we were rewarding the good, we were still, really, using the threat of sanctions too.

I pushed the idea even further. I wanted to bring a positive change to the culture of the 13- and 14-year-olds in my Grade 8 humanities class, so I decided to leave the infringement pad in the staffroom and just use commendations. I intended to run the class this way for a week to see what happened.

It turned into the norm. I found that although bad behaviour was not completely eliminated - it never will be, whatever approach you use - general behaviour was far better when the carrot was offered rather than the stick. Now that my attention was on individual effort and progress, students responded accordingly. I soon realised the power of that little piece of blue paper; for some students it was the only recognition they had received since primary school. Even Grade 12 boys began to ask their teachers for blue slips.

The system was a success not simply because it supported positive behaviour change but because it helped students who had previously struggled to manage themselves. We were not forcing the children to behave in a certain way, they were choosing to behave like that.

Rewards are controversial in schools and approaches like the model I adopted are derided by many. But I can honestly say that being positive has led to positive behaviour, whereas being negative generally had little impact at all.

David Van Tol is a history teacher at the Fukuoka International School, Japan

What else?

Can bribery boost exam results?


Beware the carrot: why rewards don't work.


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