« Your Vision For the Future of Science Ed | Main | Distance Learning In the Developing World »

Great Job. Brilliant. Way to Interrupt Class


When I visited an award-winning middle school a while back, I was impressed with the collaborative spirit among the teachers, the deep relationships the principal and staff had developed with the students, and the payoff in student-achievement results the school was seeing as a result of an intense focus on relevance and rigor in the curriculum.

Just one thing, or one student, marred my impressions of the school. Throughout the day, that student took every opportunity to interrupt teachers, distract classmates, and waste precious class time. There were outbursts, random movements, loud pencil sharpening, and tossed objects. While the student's behavior was disturbing, the teachers' reactions were what concerned me most. Discipline was essentially a plea for better behavior, with the teachers calling the student "Sweetie" each time. They also took numerous opportunities to praise the student for behaving appropriately. Other students did not get similar praise for paying attention, maintaining order in the hallways, and the like.

Apparently, the school's behavior plan called for such effusive and unwarranted praise for particularly unruly students. From what I could tell, it didn't do anything to improve the student's behavior. I wondered if the student secretly delighted in winning teacher praise simply for testing their patience, and essentially acting like a 2-year-old.

I was reminded of that school visit when I came across this article by Harvard child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd.

The article is geared to parents, who often find it difficult to balance praise and criticism of their children. But it also seems applicable for teachers who are trying to manage student behavior while boosting self-esteem, all the while trying to teach the knowledge and skills children need to succeed academically.

I know from visiting hundreds of schools throughout the country that classroom management is a big struggle for many teachers, and precious instructional time can be lost trying to deal with a single disruptive student. There's also increased pressure on teachers not to offend students, who may be inclined to complain to administrators or parents about being criticized in front of classmates. They might even try to egg the teacher in the hope of capturing it on video for YouTube.

But is praise the answer? Perhaps.

Weissbourd writes:

"Praise can be very helpful, good research shows, when it is sincere and connected to real effort and substantial, specific accomplishment—instead of telling children over and over that they are "smart," better to compliment them on a real, specific act of intelligence, whether it's picking up on a subtle social cue or developing a strong idea for a paper for school. And every child should be told at times that they are 'great' or 'terrific.'

"But children tend to know when they have really accomplished something and when they have not, and too much unconditional praise or frequent praise that isn't connected to real achievements can create self-doubts and cynicism about adults. It's patronizing."

So what's the best way to balance criticism and praise? How do you inhibit this kind of behavior without disenfranchising the student?


There is a fine balance to keep here. I think some people get hung up distinguishing between conviction and condemnation. Students should receive consequences for their inappropriate behavior (conviction) while not being attacked and judged for who they are as people (condemnation). This can be difficult to apply as adults, and even more difficult to understand for kids. Making sure kids know that we disapprove of their behavior/choices while not disapproving of them as people is hard. It starts with love, and accepting that every kid needs it...even the one(s) driving you crazy!!! At our school we try to steer clear of less-effective generalized statements of praise by making more concrete/personal statements of blessing to students. This is done by using statements that include these things: identification of the behavior, affirmation of the behavior, recognition of a character trait linked to the behavior, and framing a postive future through the behavior. It sounds complex, but once you are in the habit of viewing and sending info to kids in this way, it is very effective. And it can be something as simple as: "Hey, Bob, I really like the way to kept at that last math problem even though it was a real stumper. Perseverance like that will really serve you well next year in Algebra I" Of course, being able to make such statements to kids means really having to know them, which in turn means taking the time to find out why they are who they are. But...love is never simple :) !!


I am absolutely convinced that 95% of the people who claim to be teaching self-esteem (or attribute the practices of others to teaching self-esteem) don't have any understanding at all of self-esteem. Self-esteem is rooted in an unconditional state of being--understanding of one's self as having an equal right of being or base acceptance. In the best circumstances, this is developed at a very young age through the unconditional acceptance and love granted by significant adults.

Certainly it should not be the role of schools to rip great holes in that sense of self through disparagement that equates the value of the child with their behaviors/choices (or de-values them for other traits outside the realm of choice such as appearance, ability, etc). Similarly, students who arrive at the school door with a shaky sense of self should receive something of a compensatory reassurance that at least in the context of school, they belong, on an equal footing with all others.

To believe that this equates to some kind of sunshiny everyone is wonderful all the time, overlook the bad kind of artificial good feeling tone set by teachers does nothing to further the very real concern that self-esteem is important to the growth and development of children. The young man that your cite seems to have been an exception to the overall behavior of students at the school you visited, which leads me to suppose that overall, the school was getting things right in teaching and encouraging appropriate behavior.

So--I can only conjecture what was up with this particular kid. I don't know if he had special difficulties that had required development of a plan geared at providing extra behavioral help. The recognition of a kid when they get things right is certainly a valid strategy for a kid who has deficits that prevent a more expected learning curve (such as from reading behavioral cues of others). The effusion may sound awkward because the teachers were uncomforable with it--or because it was targetted at this one child.

They may or may not have been on the right track with this kid. Firm reminders and gentle redirection would seem to me to be more direct than pleas to "Sweetie," but then, perhaps the presence of a visitor was bringing out somewhat different behavior. Frankly, given that the overall demeanor of students was acceptable, I would prefer to hear pleas to sweetie over some of the routine chastizing and teacher's lounge devaluation that I have encountered in too many middle schools.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments