Q | Should I reward students for positive behaviors, and if so, what are some constructive ways to encourage kids to keep up the good work?
A | Yes! In general, the most effective way to encourage ongoing positive behavior is through a reward system. Rewards can come in a variety of forms: as verbal praise, such as saying, “Great job, Claire”; as extra free time (explaining that because students have read quietly for 15 minutes, they get five extra minutes of playtime); or as tangible rewards, such as tokens or points that students can apply toward prizes like books or stickers.
When you reward students for exhibiting desired behavior, you are increasing the likelihood that they will keep up the good work.
Q | I have a lot of chatty students in my class this year. How do I keep them focused and on track?
A | Again, a system of positive reinforcement (verbal praise, points or tokens, etc.) through which you reward students for their cooperative behavior is a great strategy.
However, before you design a reward system, consider the antecedents to chatty behavior. Are the -students clustered in a way that encourages chatting? Could you arrange the chairs so they can see but not talk to their peers? Do they tend to chat more right before lunch? Consider scheduling the tasks that require the greatest focus earlier in the day and the more rambunctious activities closer to lunchtime.
You could also try implementing a “Give Me Five” system. Tack up posters around the room titled give me five, with these five steps: (1) Eyes on the speaker. (2) Lips closed. (3) Ears listening. (4) Sit up straight. (5) Hands and feet quiet. Illustrations help, too. Then, when necessary, you can hold
up your hand and say, “Give me five,” and wait for the class to respond.
Q | What tactics work well with elementary-age students who become upset, frustrated, or angry very quickly?
A | Coaching kids through their emotional distress in the heat of the moment is usually more effective than trying to get to the bottom of what is upsetting them. It’s worth spending time thinking about how to get to the root of what is causing the behavior, of course, but we know that people cannot use the thinking part of their brain very well when they are angry.
For example, if third grader Jake is banging on his desk in frustration, instead of asking, “Why are you banging on your desk, Jake? What has made you upset?” give him a choice of coping skills so that he can regulate himself. Say, “I see you’re upset. Would you like to take three slow, deep breaths with me, or go to the quiet area and read books until you feel calmer?” In giving Jake a choice, you are also giving him agency at a time when he may otherwise feel helpless and thus increasingly frustrated.
Later, when he has calmed down, you can follow up to gain a better understanding of what may have caused his frustration.
Question for a child psychologist?
Allison Baker, M.D., is a pediatric psychopharmacologist at the Child Mind Institute. (childmind.org)
Illustration: Brian Rea