In summer school this year, I assisted a student teacher with a classroom full of first-graders. It was her first time teaching, and one of her and my most challenging experiences, as we had several students with ADHD, and a number of students with behavior issues.
One of the students with behavior problems was 7-year-old J., who was labeled as “the kid no one knows what to do with anymore.” He was defiant, non-compliant, disruptive, and didn’t get any work done whatsoever. His name was on the board more often than not, he often missed recess, and was regularly sent to the office or home. He hardly ever smiled.
During individual work time one day, I sat down next to J. and asked if he needed any help. He said he did, and I helped him get started with his tree map and sorting a list of words with different endings. When he did two on his own and got them right, I gave him a sticker and commended him for doing great. He looked at me with a shocked look on his face. I told him he could earn more stickers if he continued working, and might even win the class prize that day. I stood up and left him with a smile and a pat on the back.
That day, J. started raising his hand to ask for help instead of shouting out it was too hard, and he worked on and completed his assignments until it was time to clean up. He earned a lot of praise and quite a few stickers in the process, and when we tallied everyone’s sticker charts, he was the winner!
The look of surprise on his face was priceless! He literally beamed from ear to ear as he picked his prize from the treasure box. When he went to get his backpack to go home and walked past me, he hugged me and said softly so only I could hear, “This is the first time I got a prize, ever!” I had to fight back tears as I told him how proud of him I was, and that I was sure he would do great again the following day. He quietly nodded.
When I told this story to the principal and Mr. W. the school’s disciplinary officer, they both made a point of encouraging him, too. J. left for home a different boy.
The next day, J. performed well again, and earned a class prize together with those who ended in second place. When his name was called, he was once more genuinely surprised. Instead of sending a note home to inform the parents of bad behavior, the teacher sent a note to tell mom and dad how well he had done. He was so proud of himself, and when I told him I knew he could do really well, he replied, “It wasn’t even that hard to be good.”
I have no doubt J. will have a great last week of summer school. Positive reinforcement helped turn this student’s behavior around. I am sure it will be a reference point, and something that will continue to help him do well as he enters second grade come August.–And it will be a reference point for me as well as I continue my work with special needs children.
“Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful.”—B. F. Skinner