I'm not big on reward systems. Never have been. I'm one of those people who think you should do what's right because it's right, not because it gets you something. Unfortunately, when my girls moved into my home they didn't care about what was right. Even after I explained it to them. Imagine that, a kid not listening the first time. What was wrong with these people?
I have a tendency to teach the way I learn and parent the way I best respond. But believe it or not, everyone is not like me, or so I've been told.
We've all seen the hard cases. Whether it's in a classroom or in your home, some kids just won't budge unless they can see how it benefits them. It's a selfishness issue and I can teach to that, but how do I get this kid moving in the right direction while working on his "what's in it for me" problem? I've found a few things that work.
Call me crazy, but I don't do trinkets. I don't hand out small toys or stickers. I don't have a treasure box or a grab bag. I don't think a mustache ring is going to change anyone's behavior and if it does, I don't think that change will last. If you've found success with these things, I think that's great. I needed something else.
I just didn't know what that "something else" was. So, I went to the source. I asked the hard-to-motivate kid, "What would help you to make right choices?" Do you know what I didn't get? A list of stuff. You know what most of those kids want? Recognition. They want us to recognize when they are doing what's right.
So I started thinking about ways to praise those kids who don't get much of it throughout the day, my own included. Once I had a few ideas in mind, I gave them a try. Do you know that they worked? I had kids in my classroom that started out the year as headaches and ended as some of my best workers. All because of a little praise.
Here's what worked for me:
1. Hand-written notes: Have you ever gotten a note from someone telling you they believe in you or recognizing something they think you did well? Did you read it once and then throw it away? Of course not. Those are things that you treasure and keep and reread a million times. Whether it's a post-it note with a quick "Thank you for waiting your turn" and a smiley face or a card chronicling all the good changes you've noticed in them over the last month, that hand-written note will be highly valued by a kid that values very little.
2. Modeling: Sometimes you have to look really close to find something. I mean really, really, really, really close. But finally, you catch a glimpse of something good. Pounce on it quickly before they mess it up by doing or saying something mean and ugly. Hurry up, it won't last long! Now, stop and get everyone's attention and say something like, "I really appreciate how Ashley is taking care of our class materials. Notice how she is putting all the caps firmly on the markers, carefully making sure they are all nice and tight. What a blessing that will be for the next student who uses them. None of the markers will be dried out, thanks to Ashley." It takes about a minute, but can't you see little Ashley's face while you point out what she's doing right in front of the whole class.
3. Tell someone: Brag on this kid a little bit. It can be another teacher, the principal, the child's parent, anyone. Watching you talk about them in a good way might just be something they've never heard. Imagine a parent who is bombarded with negative calls from school, getting one that's positive. That's powerful stuff people.
4. Thankfulness: Maybe this kid has driven you to the brink of insanity today. Maybe she's done everything she could to get on your last nerve. Maybe you hope she's absent tomorrow, even though you know she'll have perfect attendance at the end of the year. Find one thing that she did right and thank her for it. You won't want to. You won't feel like doing it, but do it anyway. These kids don't give much to be thankful for, but start finding something. "Thank you, Hannah, for staying in line on the way to the cafeteria this afternoon. It's a big help to me when you stay in line." The next day when Hannah's in line, she may remember your words. She may choose to act right because yesterday she got a moment of special recognition for acting right in line. It may just be one small change, but who wouldn't welcome even the tiniest of changes? It's really a million small changes that add up to better behavior.
Teachers, I know your job is a tough one. I know you have a million things to do and they all need to be done now. I know you work to love and care for the little (and big) ones in your classroom. I know.
I know that the big yellow bus brings the compliant kid, the entitled kid, and the bully all from the same route. I know the hard workers are a breath of fresh air above a pool of stagnant water. I know.
But take a moment and think about those hard-to-handle kids in your classroom. When do you think they've last heard "Good job" or "I believe you can do it" or even, "I love you." If everyone expects the worst from her, that's exactly what everyone will get. You will make an impact this year. It probably won't be the grand, life-transforming impact the movies portray, but it will be something. Make it something positive. Make it something that makes next year better.
Maybe all you'll see is the trenches, but somewhere down the line, if every teacher along the way makes even the tiniest of changes for the better, those changes will add up and impact the life of that student. Your part may seem small, but it's not.
Find something to praise. It might only change her trajectory by a fraction, but over time, that will make a big difference.