Addressing problem behaviors starts by creating a positive learning environment that prevents misbehaviors. This involves being aware of the type of comments we use to help children behave in appropriate ways. In observing classrooms, I’ve found a variety of types of language that teachers use in managing behaviors, some that lead to even more behavior problems and others that create a healthy learning environment:
Turn Around Problem Behavior with Better Teacher Comments
1. Positive Feedback. “I see three children have their books out and open” “Marcia and Judy, you shared your materials well today.” “You mixed red and blue in your painting. How did you make these lines?” This is encouraging talk that describes the positive things your children are doing – whether it is good behaviors or academics. It shows that you are interested in their work and efforts. This language is effective because it provides clear feedback to the children – and other children, about what they are doing right. It is non-judgmental and non-manipulative. Here’s a great video from the Responsive Classroom that gives examples of what they call “Reinforcing Language”.
2. Empty Praise. Short comments like, “good job” and “nice work” feel good and create a positive environment, however children don’t learn much from them about why they did a good job, or what aspect of their work is good. They are like junk food – they taste good, but are not very nutritious. Also, if you tell all the children that their pictures are “beautiful”, they quickly realize these comments have no real meaning.
3. Manipulative Praise. “I like the way David is sitting.” Children quickly learn that these statements are coercive and are not sincere. They pit one child against the others and can lead to resentment. Instead, try describing what children are doing that is appropriate in an anonymous way: “Some children are ready, sitting quietly on the rug with legs crossed.” This will probably take some practice to get used to!
4. Negative Nagging. “Jared, stop that.” “No calling out.” “You were all very noisy in the hall.” “Shhh” These statements draw attention to the behaviors you don’t want to occur. Why would you want to draw attention to inappropriate behavior? Even worse, they don’t let the children know what they should be doing. Instead, use positive feedback to focus the children’s attention on what your expectations are. If a child needs correction, it should be done privately.
5. Humiliation. “You’ll never make to 3rd grade if you keep that up.” “Who do you think you are?” “What’s wrong with you?” These statements are never appropriate and come from extreme frustration – a sign that a teacher needs extra support to turn things around – and plenty of work on her own emotional regulation. Needless to say, these comments encourage children to become defensive and act out, or humiliated and shut down.
When I observe novice teachers, the most common mistake I see is a focus on negative nagging. The teachers too often point out every little inappropriate behavior, slowing down the transitions and lessons, and creating a negative climate. It’s a joy to see a teacher use plenty of positive feedback instead. Invariably, the classrooms using positive feedback are more calm, with more learning taking place. Try tape recording or videotaping yourself for a little while. Keep track of the types of comments you make and notice the children’s responses. Try practicing using more positive language throughout the day – and especially when things get chaotic. The higher on this scale of teacher talk you can stay, the better the learning environment will be!