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The Power of Positivity

The best advice I ever received in my teacher training was "Look for the good." In the daily grind and the chaos of a classroom (or home life), this is also the easiest thing to forget. Academic and behavioral deficits need correcting, after all. And, when one sees the good in a challenging situation, finding time to acknowledge it is also difficult.

Last summer I was reminded of how important looking for the good is and how little effort is required to recognize it. I trained with and worked part-time for a Lindamood-Bell learning center, where children with significant difficulties with reading come for intensive half-day tutoring in the summers. The Lindamood-Bell method involved using extraordinary amounts of positive reinforcement. Every few seconds students received non-verbal positive reinforcers, like "magic stones" being added to a bowl. Children could also earn tokens to exchange for prizes at the end of the week. As well, the staff were trained to start every correction by saying something positive about what the child had just done. For example, if a child misread the word "kite" as "kit," I might start by saying "Good job with the /k/ sound at the beginning of the word" before coaching the child through reading the word correctly.

If this seems like an excessive amount of praise for very little work on the student's part, please understand that children who receive this type of tutoring have already experienced a lot of failure. In fact, many times they have internalized messages like "I'm just not good at reading," or even "I'll never do well at school." At one time or another these children have also felt that adults are frustrated with them. By the time they receive specialized tutoring, these children are often avoidant of work to some extent or another. They may also distrust the adults who are sent to help them because they fear re-experiencing the short tempers of those who did not know how to support them well in the past. The cost of rebuilding trust and confidence for students with significant learning differences is a just few seconds here and there saying "Good job," "Great" "Awesome," "Perfect," or "Yes!" while adding a few plastic "magic stones" to a bowl. It's so easy to do once it becomes a habit. The hardest part is overcoming the adult reflex to first or only point out the error.

While I am no longer working in a Lindamood-Bell center, all of the children with whom I work have experienced some sort of academic challenge or another. These difficulties can manifest in subject areas, like reading, math, or writing. In other cases, the difficulties lie with skills like organization, memory, and attention. Despite these challenges, I want my students to believe that they can do tasks independently, not just when I am available to provide assistance. Part of developing that belief is pointing out when children are successfully solving their own problems and finding ways to help undesirable tasks feel less intimidating. Positive reinforcement is vital to both.

Toward the end of providing positive reinforcement, I have created a token economy, or reward system, that I use in my tutoring sessions. This is not novel or unique; you will see many tutors, tutoring centers, and classrooms using similar tools. In my system, I have a card with 50 blank squares around the edge. I fill in those blanks with a star every time a student does something positive. My goal is to award one card per tutoring session, so I am giving a star slightly less often than once per minute. Depending on the student and our work goals I might award stars for the following:

  • Coming home with a completed homework assignment book

  • Starting work on time

  • Having all the required materials for homework

  • A correctly answered question

  • Working to make corrections to a question that was initially answered incorrectly

  • Noticing an error and self correcting it

  • Writing for one minute without stopping

  • Completing an entire tutoring or homework activity (I'll award several stars for this.)

  • Asking a thoughtful question

  • Taking the initiative to look something up

  • Avoiding distractions during work time

My students can then spend these cards on a prize, which is a small bag of stickers, or save them up for bigger prizes, such as fidget toys and craft supplies. I also offer the option of turning in the card for five minutes of game time with me, a choice that many students prefer some or all of the time.

You would be amazed at how these little cards have changed my relationship with my students. Over weeks this system of consistent positive reinforcement helps shy children to become more confident and distractable children more focused. I recommend it to anyone who works one-on-one with children. Not only do they love it, the process can improve the mindset of adults who are working with children; you notice the good things more and focus less on challenges. While token economies are great, any system that reminds you to praise often and genuinely is a step in the right direction.


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