Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Using Positive Reinforcement in Class Management

Positive reinforcement is something that has been talked about many times in NIE, in seminars and in schools. In case your memory about NIE courses is a bit hazy, here's a definition I got from Google:

"In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves the addition of areinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened."

So if you do something good for your students after they do something, that behaviour will be strengthened and they are more likely to repeat it in class.

At this point, I know some will be skeptical as to whether it really works. I don't blame them. When I was a beginning teacher, I was given a particularly rowdy class in one year. I tried to teach as they had trained me in NIE only to find the kids unresponsive or worse, behaving even worse. Like how I tried to talk nicely to a student who had yelled at me in class only to have him yell at me more. Then I yelled at him for yelling and he finally stopped. 

Not my best moment, I know, but be nice, I was a beginning teacher then. Also, I won't be surprised if many other teachers, beginning or experienced, learned that same thing in the classroom: That being 'fierce' works.

Then after a few years of this, I was, frankly, sick of it. I was falling ill at the start of every school year from yelling at them, I felt my blood pressure go up and ultimately, I wasn't feeling very happy at work. 

So I changed, and it worked. My classes became calmer and I didn't get as many sore throats as I used to. 

(Sounds like a miracle cure? Well, of course, because you are reading in one sentence what I had to practice over a number of years to reach an approach that felt right to me and I have conveniently glossed over all the painful times that something didn't work or when something I did led to even more chaos. Remember: It takes time.)

What worked for me? 

1. Every teacher should have a signal to tell the class to quieten down and listen. I made it a point to praise the first child to do so instead of scolding the last ones who don't. This works like a miracle for lower primary classes.

2. I clearly told the class what I expected them to do and praised the ones who did it. In another class when I wanted them to sit in a circle, I told them I wanted a circle, I used hand signals to show them where I wanted the circle to be and I told them that they had to be seated quietly to be ready. 
Obviously when the class starts doing this, there will be massive chaos. I would walk around to help and I would also keep an eye out for children who had done as I had asked and point out what they had done right. Most of the class will get it. If the stragglers didn't, I helped them, because my goal wasn't to catch those who didn't get it, it was to help them do the behaviour I wanted.

3. I found that non-verbal cues worked just as well as verbal ones. Even a simple thumbs-up was enough to fill a child with pride. I've also seen cards and toys being used.

4. Loads of teachers give stamps and points for work done in class. They also took them away for bad behaviour. I generously gave points for good behaviour and took them away only when the behaviour was preposterous. I also did this when I was holding competitions in class, so I would award a group a point for a correct answer and another point for good behaviour, ie, sitting quietly, cheering on their classmate etc etc. 

5. I changed my language to point out most of the good stuff my students did. When I had a class doing group writing, even if there were tons of mistakes, I tried to look out for something good. ("I like this part because...") Even when, er, there was nothing to be found, I tried to phrase it in a way to show I was helping the student. ("I'm going to help you make this better."/"I think it would be better if......")

This sounds easy, but remember, this is after a number of years of tears, frustration, yelling. Even when I thought I got it, I would still make mistakes, so I'm warning you first:

Make sure you are praising for something the child has done out of his/her own effort. Do not, for example, praise them for work done by their groupmates, work they completed by copying from another student, or work that has obviously been done with an adult's help! That only reinforces to the child that I can get recognition by stealing other people's efforts!

Also, and this has been said countless times in countless literature, praise the child for effort spent and progress made, not for the result achieved at the end and not by saying, "You are so clever!". Firstly, because you don't want to demotivate the weaker students for not achieving the same high marks as their peers. Secondly, you don't want to scare the pupils away from trying harder and only do things that they think is easy for them to achieve.

Remember at the end, you want to give the students the confidence to succeed and you also want to give yourself a break. I had a very miserable time when I felt I had to yell at my class everyday, but after change, I found I was much less frazzled at the end of the day and I also had a better relationship with my later classes. It does take time to find a style that works for you but I can assure you that when you do, it works out better in the long run. 

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