There are moments in life we can never forget. Moments that leave you without words while your mind races in reaction. As a Special Education teacher, I had those moments often. But this particular moment shaped my career as a behavioral therapist and drives my practice to this day. The following story is about a moment that has stuck with me throughout my career working with children with special needs.
Johnny was an adorable Kindergartener who was experiencing Elementary School for the first time. He was enrolled in general education Kindergarten and had no history of special needs or services. Johnny had thick brown curly hair, pudgy hands, and a stout figure. He was extremely articulate and perceptive, and tested into the second-grade level curriculum. However, his teacher reported that although Johnny had many strengths, he also had difficulty following directions, transitioning from task to task, and getting along with classroom peers.
I set up a time to observe Johnny in class as a first step in determining if we should consider special education services. I arrived in his classroom about 30 minutes after school started. The students were working on a coloring activity at their desks. I noticed Johnny right away. He was louder than the other students, moved quickly through the classroom, and ignored the behavior reminders his teacher was giving.
Later, the teacher gave the class directions to clean up and join her on the carpet. Johnny followed instructions and sat at the front of the carpet. The students were all facing a big whiteboard used for lessons. The teacher walked in front of the students and pulled a piece of paper off the center of the whiteboard. The paper had a photo of Johnny taped to it. Under Johnny’s picture were four tally marks. In front of the class, Johnny’s teacher held up the photograph with tally marks and said something to the effect of, “Johnny, this is you (pointing at his photo). I’ve had to give you four bad behavior tally marks for not listening to directions. Now I have to give you three more: 1 for not listening, 1 for being too loud, and 1 for running in the classroom.” She marked the tallies as she spoke. “Thats seven. If you get to 10, you’ll have to go to the office.
Johnny sat quietly through the rest of the lesson. I, on the other hand, was left frozen. Johnny certainly had demonstrated some behavioral concerns, but this seemed like a less than ideal way to respond. Throughout the whole hour, I was observing, only a few times did his teacher give him positive reinforcement.
So why am I sharing this story? My experience and training have taught me that responding primarily negatively to challenging behavior will rarely result in long-term positive change. This article is titled “Positively Powerful” because the power of positive affirmation, reinforcement, and positive rapport building with children are the backbones of effective long-term behavior change. Approaching challenging behavior positively is powerfully important when supporting children with or without special needs.
This moment with Johnny circles through my mind often. He joined my special education classroom, and we turned his behavior around simply through positive reinforcement. We gave him praise, affirmation, high-fives, and stickers whenever he did something great. He got stickers for even the small things like tying his shoes alone. When challenging behaviors occurred, we returned to all the great things he had been doing and showed him the stickers he had earned. We explained what we wanted and expected of him versus what he was doing wrong.
Focusing on things a child does wrong rather than focusing on what they are doing right is tough on a child’s confidence. It causes anxiety and stress. Conversely, positivity and affirmation empower our children to continue to feel okay about making mistakes. I try to imagine this for myself as a therapist; if someone I respect comes to observe my work and afterward details all of my mistakes without any acknowledgment of something positive, I would likely begin to second guess myself. My confidence moving forward would be significantly impacted. If that person focused on all of the positives they saw in my work and then constructively relayed areas of weakness, I would be able to receive feedback much more easily. I would also be able to change specific behaviors as I otherwise feel confident and uplifted by the positives.
When someone receives positive reinforcement, they are likely to repeat that behavior. Take Johnny, for example; when we gave him a direction such as “go to your desk and sit down,” he would get about halfway there and then knock something off a table he was walking past. Rather than pointing out and reminding Johnny that “we don’t knock things off tables” and to “keep our hands to ourselves,” we would say, “wow, Johnny, you’re doing a great job walking to your desk. Let’s keep our hands to ourselves the whole way there!” When behavior redirection is communicated in this primarily positive manner, Johnny could process our redirection while still feeling good about himself.
Positive reinforcement can be a behavior intervention plan all on its own. Nothing fancy is required. Remember to let your kids know when they’ve done something great can change everything. If they are having a hard day, ramp up your affirmations. If they’ve done something wrong, start the conversation with something positive and make the redirection/behavior reminder secondary.
Every child deserves to feel supported and empowered to reach their potential. If I can reinforce anything as a therapist, is to remind people of the power of the positive.