The Power of Positive Reinforcement

You just spent a good 30 minutes cleaning the kitchen – washing dishes, emptying the dishwasher, and sweeping the floor.  It’s the little victories, right??  Then your roommate/significant other/kid walks in, greets you, and dumps a bunch of crap on the counter… then grabs a snack from the fridge, and walks out.  Ouch.

I don’t know about you, but my love language isn’t necessarily “words of affirmation.”  (Side bar:  Look up the Five Love Languages if you’re unfamiliar – It’s about how we give and receive love from the people we care about.  And it’s incredibly insightful.)  STILL, I appreciate it when someone recognizes the good work that I do, as long as the reaction is genuine. Even a small “thank you for doing this!” goes a long way.

I like to think that this carries over to a classroom environment as well.  Yes, students *should* proactively have the proper supplies, take notes, do their homework, and be good citizens in the classroom and beyond.  But just like we appreciate recognition for the cleaning we *should* be doing in our personal lives, I believe that students appreciate recognition for their positive actions… as long as the recognition is genuine!  Thanking every student for taking out a pencil every day would be exhausting and disingenuous.

On the flip side, there should be consistent consequences for students that choose not to follow the classroom rules.  Students appreciate structure and learn best when they know what to expect from you.  That’s a whole different post for another day.  BUT if you’re curious, check out “Conscious Classroom Management” by Rick Smith.  It’s an excellent read and has great ideas, even for veteran teachers.

I taught middle school math last year (bless all the middle school teachers out there!) and realized it was not my forte.  However, I quickly adapted and had a few successes that can be applied to middle school and beyond.

1.  Students love competition

  • Post-It-Note Group Challenge: 
    • I set up my desks in groups of 4, and assign a post-it color for each group. I write the student desk number (1-36) on the right color post it and affix it to the corner of each desk with packing tape.  Then I hang a color sign in front of each set of desks so I can see the group color.
    • I post a blank piece of paper on the front white board, with a colored post-it for each of the teams in the classroom.  This is for group points/tallies.
    • From the moment the bell rings, I start tallying points on those colored post its.  “The green team gets a point because they all have their supplies on their desks.  The red team gets two points because they are already working on their warm-up.  The pink team gets a point because they are silently ready for their quiz today.”  etc.  When kids catch on they’ll actually start saying those phrases for me!  haha!  Student (about his group):  “The orange team gets a point because they have their stuff out.”  Then I have to remind them that *I* am the only one who can assign points, and they don’t get points when they ask.  (Side bar:  Maybe I need to start something where teams can nominate one another for points?  Hmmm…. food for thought.)
    • All this sounds great… BUT IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL.  You have to up the competition ante with those classes!  Everything turns into an opportunity to earn points.  (And last year it *WORKED*!)
      • The first group to silently get their pencils & binders out.
      • The first group to silently hold up their homework in the air. (silence truly is golden…)
      • All groups who have 100% homework completion from the night before.
      • The group that asks the best questions.
      • The group that works most effectively together.
      • The first group to clean up.
      • The first group to return to their seats.
      • As you can see, these points tend to be based on behaviors that help students to be most successful academically.
    • When I switch the seating chart, I give candy or small prizes to the winning group.  And a new competition ensues.  Yes, I know there’s a huge debate on candy right now… but it works.  Maybe free time privileges, or the opportunity to pick music for silent working time would be more appropriate rewards.
    • In the past I used raffle tickets for my Algebra 1 classes and drew a winning name each Friday.  However, I’ve switched my approach because I much prefer that students earn recognition for working together.
  • Class Games (This deserves a completely separate post!)
    • Turn ANYTHING you can into a game – even upper level students love it!
    • Games that recognize students’ math ability *and* include possibilities for random groups to win keeps most kids invested in the game.
    • Give kids opportunities to “shoot” in games like Trashketball, where they’re earning respect and recognition for their academic AND non-academic skills.

2.  ALL students love stamps (& stickers).  READ: Students love knowing that they’re right!

  • Even juniors and seniors in high school.  Don’t believe me?  TRY IT.  (Just don’t over-do it…)  I have honors kids who ask at the end of class if they need to get a stamp on their work in order to leave.
  • Use self-inking stamps to check *sections* of student work.  You don’t have to stamp every question.  Usually, I’ll circle the ones they need to fix and then stamp that section when they’re all right.
  • Let students who have finished stamp/check their peers’ work!  They love explaining to their classmates and love the power of stamping their peers’ papers.
  • Keep adding to the “student checkers” (I find 5 / 25 is a pretty good ratio.)
  • Reinforce positive “stamping etiquette” – “This is how we stamp when we’re stampers.”  “I like how Jorge only stamped each section one time and didn’t stamp anyone’s skin.”  “The stampers did a great job of checking everyone’s work today!”

3.  General Recognition

  • Ask specific students to hold up their foldables & other work as a model of “what to do” throughout a lesson.
  • Check 1 person’s work within a group. “Great job!  Now you check everyone else’s work in your group.”
  • Send a student up to write his work on the whiteboard so other students can see the process.
  • Have individual conversations with students when you notice their behavior has changed for the better.  “Maria, I’ve noticed that you started doing your homework and because of that your quiz grades have been improving.  Great work!”
  • Recognize students’ empathy toward others.  “Ayla, thank you for helping Martin to pick up his papers when he dropped his binder.  That was thoughtful of you.”
  • Acknowledge great group work, and be specific about how groups have worked well together.  “I noticed that Hassan and Juan worked well together today.  They were taking turns asking questions and explaining ideas to one another.  Then, when they could not figure something out, they raised their hands and waited quietly for me to help.”
  • Call home when you see positive changes in a student’s academic OR personal behavior
  • Recognize great questions.  Students feel special and empowered to ask more questions when you acknowledge the fact that either a) their peers had the same question but didn’t have the courage to speak up or b) they were thinking outside the box.

Whether internally or externally imposed, many students face a great deal negativity and frustration when it comes to mathematics.  Maybe they haven’t had success in the past or haven’t developed the academic skills necessary to support their learning.  The more you can support them by creating a positive classroom environment, the more willing they will be to take risks and put in the necessary effort.  After all, risk and effort help us to grow.


– Miss Elsie

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