Anyone who’s taught knows that sometimes unresponsive, unruly or disruptive students can present a real classroom management challenge – as the saying, goes, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." But when you devote more of your energy toward the misbehavers than to the students who are meeting your expectations, you are inadvertently reinforcing the bad behavior. This “rewarding through punishment” may subconsciously motivate students to act out so that they can get the attention they crave.
Problems in the classroom definitely need to be addressed, but it is important to remember that well-behaved students deserve our attention, too. You can make an example of a student exhibiting positive behaviors just as easily as you can a misbehaving student. This is known as social reinforcement. Taking the time to comment on a student’s good behavior (“Good job,” “I can tell you’re working hard,” etc.) communicates to the rest of the class that acting up isn’t the only way to get on your radar.
Unfortunately, some teachers still implement the disciplinary tactic of writing the names of misbehaving students on the board. An alternate, and much more successful, method could be to write the names of the students who are demonstrating positive behaviors on the board. This works as a motivator – rather than have students behave out of fear of having their name added to the “naughty” list, they want to be included. (Of course, as a guest teacher, consult with the school’s policy regarding this kind of activity before taking it upon yourself.)
In some situations, it may be appropriate to offer productive students a reward – a sticker, free time at the end of the period, etc. (Again, check with the school to see what is acceptable.)
“But isn’t that bribery?” you might be asking. A reward is not the same as a bribe. Bribes are given to someone who is not doing what you want to try and incentivize them to change their behavior. A reward is something which is given only once the desired behavior has been successfully demonstrated.
It is important to be consistent when administering positive reinforcement. It should also be unambiguous. Students should be able to detect a clear pattern of cause-and-effect. It might be tempting to praise a student for whom you feel sorry, or to heap praise upon a select few. But the class as a whole will not be able to connect the dots, and the effectiveness of your positive reinforcement strategy will suffer.
When a misbehaving student catches on and starts to get with the program, resist the urge to say something counterproductive or sarcastic. Don’t hold grudges. “It’s about time,” or other similar comments will feel like punishment to the newly behaving student. No matter how difficult a student has been behaving previously, once they begin to demonstrate appropriate behavior, they should receive all the same positive reinforcement anyone else is getting. Behaving should feel better to the student than misbehaving.
You’ll find there’s more than enough grease to go around, and to keep things running smoothly.
Feel free to share other positive reinforcement examples you've used successfully in the comments below.