Many years ago, when my wife and I had three small, active, and headstrong children, we turned to a parenting book for help (link here. I know the cover looks dated, but it had good stuff in it).
I don't remember everything I read in that book, but there was one point that the author made over and over and over. In fact, he ended every chapter with a quote to this effect: "It is far easier to reinforce good behavior than to change undesirable behavior."
I have come to believe that. Granted, there are times when a parent or teacher must correct bad behavior. You just have to. But I also believe that for many of us, this is our default. That is, we take good behavior for granted while disciplining for bad.
I'm not arguing that we should just ignore bad behavior. There are times when consequences are necessary if a child is going to grow in a healthy, happy functional adult.
Still, I maintain that we spend far more time focusing on the "dont's" than we do reinforcing the "do's."
This summer my family and I attended a sea lion show at the St. Louis zoo. It was really delightful. One thing I noticed is how often the trainers rewarded the sea lions. Every time the sea lions did something good, the trainers reinforced it with a handful of fish.
I understand that students are not sea lions. They have to learn to do the right thing for the right reasons. In life, we don't get rewarded every time we do the right things.
But, think for a minute about why you do the things you do. I would guess that much of what you do during the day is done because you want a reward. You go to work because you want a paycheck. You exercise because you feel good or want to lose weight. Etc. etc. Most adults, I believe, act more out of the hope for a desired reward than they do out of fear of punishment.
How many people do you know who speed? The potential punishment does not modify behavior. And yet, I think most of us expect kids to just be good because they should be. We act because we want rewards, but we expect adolescents to just do the right thing--or be punished.
This has changed the way I work with kids--my own and those I teach. Instead of setting rules and punishing them if they disobey, I now try to find ways to reward good behavior. I still do give out consequences, but I give them out far less than I used to, and the whole energy and dynamic of my classroom has changed. Allowing them to earn rewards draws on a number of powerful human tendencies and
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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