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Beyond carrots and sticks

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By Paul Dixbehaviour specialist

Take a look at our advice on how positive reinforcement is an effective way of managing behaviour

Girl doing 'thumbs up'

The image of the stick used to force children to behave well has a violence that echoes another era. I am not going to use negative reinforcement, threats or any other ‘stick’ wielded in anger to force my class to behave. I am going to encourage children with a softer stick: kindness.

The most powerful technique for wielding the soft stick is to remind children of their previous good behaviour as you tackle their present actions. For example: ‘Ashraf, do you remember when you helped me clear up the classroom? That is the Ashraf that I need to see today, that is the Ashraf I know can make good choices.’ There is nothing to argue with and nothing to attack.

Avoid short-term fixes

Shouting at or threatening children may create a change in behaviour; in the moment it might have the effect that you desire. In the longer term, it is a blunt instrument that has no proven effect on behaviour change. Many children thrive on the danger, adrenaline and risk that comes from a teacher using this type of behaviour management. The thrill of challenging an angry adult, the healthy applause from their friends and the immediacy of attention mean that the rewards outweigh the probable sanctions.

I don’t believe that bribing children to behave well is a sustainable strategy. All people have a deep desire to be appreciated, not to be adorned with gifts and false expectations. Differentiating your rewards means that you know how each child feels appreciated or important.

This takes time, effort and commitment on your part. Some children find their ‘importance’ through fame: their work on display, applause in assembly or a poem that is read out as a great example to the class. Other people find their importance in a quiet word, an extra responsibility or subtle, discreet reinforcement. Different reinforcement works for different characters. It is not what you give but the way that you give it that counts. I can give you a special job and make you feel like a king; I can give you a £5 note and make you feel like you don’t matter.

Adapt reinforcement

Great teachers understand that making children feel appreciated and important is a more refined and intelligent way to manage behaviour. Dangling random carrots works for some, but as the child grows older they demand larger and more expensive carrots. We want children to take responsibility for their own behaviour, not to be always looking to their teachers for approval.

It is small things that make the biggest difference and build the most positive relationships. Convincing your children that there is no place that you would rather be, tailoring your reinforcement for individuals, treating children with kindness even when their behaviour is intended to trigger a different response.

Don’t praise too much

Over praising lowers expectations, makes you appear insincere and doesn’t encourage children to feel genuinely appreciated. Preserve the value of praise by balancing it with other reinforcers that are just as powerful. Give children what they really desire: your time, attention, pride, humour, passion for learning, pleasure with their company and a positive relationship. Celebrating all behaviours with effusive praise means that you have nowhere else to go when the really good things happen. Rather like the teacher who shouts too much your strategy, overused, loses impact.

Carrots and sticks are blunt, uninspiring instruments. Outstanding behaviour management requires outstanding relationships. Although it is not easy, quick or simple, changing behaviour and meeting the needs of the child is the win/win outcome in behaviour management.

Reinforcers that work better than dangling carrots

  • Find out what makes a child feel appreciated and use it to reinforce good behaviour.
  • Use ‘post-it’ praise – reinforce children who are working well, without disturbing them, by sticking a short encouraging message on their table or under their book.
  • Acknowledge children personally with a smile at the door and take an interest in children’s lives outside the classroom.
  • Make reflective comments on written work. For example: ‘Kylie, I am so pleased that you took the extra time to…’.
  • Give children extra responsibility for the organisation of the classroom.
  • Give subtle, non-verbal positive reinforcement – for example: a thumbs up, pat on the back, and so on.

Find out more

Take a look at Paul’s advice on ways to deal with attention-seeking children without neglecting your class.

Paul behaviour training is available as a self-study online course. Email for a free sample.

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