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March 5, 2021

Keeping it Positive in Your Classroom

Ever felt like your classroom was the arena for a tug of war between you and your students? Chances are that, looking back on that time, you can see that you were focusing on correcting individual students’ behavior, while not doing much to acknowledge students who were meeting expectations.

How do teachers get “unstuck” when we find ourselves in such positions? How do we improve the classroom environment?

At times like these, the “positive framing” approach can be especially helpful. Doug Lemov shares this concept in Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. He refers to Positive Framing as “narrating the world you want your students to see even while you are relentlessly improving it, making corrections consistently and positively.”

Assess Yourself

The first step is to get a clear picture of the language you are using with students. Don’t count on your own general impressions—instead, record lessons via audio or video. (If you are new to using video to capture your practice, I recommend viewing Using Video to Improve Practice: Do It Yourself!).

Then go back and listen. Sort your language into two categories:

  • Language of Positive Framing, which might include language that directs students what to do (not what not to do) and acknowledges students’ positive choices and the meeting of expectations; and
  • Language of Redirection/Consequences, which might include individual student corrections and rhetorical questions.

This will help you see how your own language might be contributing to a less-than-positive environment. Do your words emphasize the negative over the positive? And if so, what can you do about it? How can you step outside your default reactions to respond to students in productive ways?

This is when it helps to see other teachers in action for inspiration and ideas.

Learning from Positive Reinforcement for Class Participation

This Teaching Channel video demonstrates Jen Saul’s approach to positively reinforcing student behavior. She rewards and acknowledges students’ positive behavior and their rigorous thinking through a classroom currency system. This system is effective at reinforcing students’ positive behavior for several reasons:

Jen Saul8
  • She giveth—not taketh away. The system is additive rather than based on deductions. Students can earn bonus points throughout the day. Although Ms. Saul does not specify what she gives points for, a teacher could choose to tailor points to specific behaviors the class is working on. Since points are only given, not taken away, it is less likely to feel subjective for students.
  • Easy to manage. Ms. Saul recognizes students by number and only uses a small part of her white board. The coin amount is determined at the beginning of the day, so students know what to expect in terms of the money they can earn. The items Ms. Saul contributes to the system are relatively low cost (coin stamps, notebooks, treasure box prizes) and some are no cost at all (assisting a teacher, having more time for a test).
  • Student ownership. Students get to decide when they want to use the coins they have earned. Do they want to save for a more expensive item? They have that choice.

Setting the Tone From Day One

Of course, a reinforcement system won’t work on its own. Sometimes teachers put a reinforcement system into place but are frustrated by some student behaviors that continue to persist, like talking at inappropriate times.

What’s going wrong? The truth is that Positive Framing only goes so far. If a teacher fails to hold students to expectations, his or her authority will be undermined over time.

Ms. Saul’s positive reinforcement system is effective because she uses it consistently. Her students know she will hold them to the classroom expectations.

In another Teaching Channel video Setting the Tone from Day One, Nick Romagnolo makes an incredibly important point: “Our expectations are what you allow them to do, not what you say.”

We must clearly state our expectations and hold students accountable by having them do a procedure again when necessary. Only then will our students see that our words match our actions.

How do you use Positive Framing techniques in your own classroom? What are some examples of how you hold students to classroom expectations?


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