1. Positivity and Motivation: Basic Definitions and Assumptions

The topic of behavior management comes up a lot. For some it conjures the picture of the teacher standing guard over the class, ready to pounce at the first utterance. For others it’s the nurturing teacher, who loves her students dearly and goads them into compliance through other means.

Different methods work for different teachers. And for different reasons. Rather than compare methods, let’s work from the ground up. Reflect on any classroom you’ve been in – as a student, observer, teacher – and think about what makes it successful.


As we go through this journey, we’re going to base our work on two assumptions:

  1. Students want to do well
  2. Teachers want students to do well

It sounds obvious, no? Think about the student who complains all day about being in school, and rejoices at the bell. Clearly he doesn’t want to be there. Or the student who always tries to get out of math – they have no interest in being there. Is it because they don’t want to do well, or feel like they just can’t (and turn it into a show)?


As we go down the rabbit hole,we’re going to encounter a lot of words that have a million meanings, depending on who says them. This is how I will be using them, and I’ll be talking about students generally (since that’s our topic). You can generalize from there.

  1. Behavior – something a student does.
    1. Example: talk, turn in homework, walk, run
  2. Consequence – whatever happens after/as a result of behavior
    1. A consequence is often used to mean punishment, but we’ll be talking about all kids. Positive, like a prize; negative, like losing recess; or natural, like getting hurt after jumping from a tall height. Positive and negative, when we talk about them, will be imposed by teachers. Natural consequences are natural.
  3. Reward – a positive consequence (special lunch, candy, positive call home, etc)
  4. Punishment – a negative consequence. (detention, losing recess, a call to a parent, etc)
  5. Black-list – a list of things NOT allowed (behaviors, or things like phones)
  6. White-list – a list of things that ARE allowed (behaviors, or things like water)
  7. Expectations – a list of things which are allowed, and SHOULD be there (like turning in homework, pen and pencil, etc)

It’s interesting to reflect on your own experiences as an observer in a classroom, and working with kids. Where have you seen any of these things in play? Many teachers use both rewards and punishments – but which happens more often, and more consistently? Which are more frequent and smaller, and less frequent but bigger?

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