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The True Story of Matthew and the Power of Praise

Posted by homeschoolmentormom on January 30, 2011

     This is a true story that took place WAY back when I was a preschool teacher.  At the time, I worked in a large daycare center, with one large classroom containing around 80 kids and 4 teachers.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent um, ornery—no, guilty.

             One of the little boys, Matthew, age 4, was a pill.  He seemed to be a study in contrasts.  He could be as sweet and loving one minute, and out of control the next.  He was very smart; we used to say he’d grow up to be a politician because of the way he would argue with us.  It seemed as if he was always in trouble.  He was wild.  He resisted naps.  He had trouble sharing toys, and he was often involved in playground scuffles (often over toys or taking turns.)  Finally he started really hurting (biting, hitting, pushing) other children.  Every day.

      The staff had a meeting about the problem.  Instead of devising new punishments or calling another meeting with the parents, we decided to try a new strategy.

         One of the teachers would be assigned to stay close to Matthew all day long.  This teacher was instructed to do two things: 1) Keep him from hurting the other children, and 2) start looking for the good in Matthew—and praising him for it.  The other teachers were also instructed to praise Matthew for any positive thing that he did.

      I have to admit, some days it was hard.  We had to become really creative to find things to praise him for.  At first, the praise Matthew got went something like this:  “Wow, Matthew, you haven’t thrown a fit in twenty whole minutes!  Don’t you feel proud of yourself?”  Or, “Matthew!  You haven’t biten anyone during recess today.  I can tell you’re trying hard to be kind to others.”  And even, “Matthew, thank-you for using your words to tell Phillip the ball was yours.  You’re really learning self-control.” 

     Within a few days, it became, “Matthew, I want you to know that I’ve noticed how nicely you took turns on the swing today.”  And even, “You did a great job cleaning up cheerfully, Matthew. Thanks for being a good helper.”

      Whenever he did something right, whenever he was kind or considerate, whenever he WASN’T doing anything naughty, Matthew got praise for it.  And inside a week, a miracle happened.  It started getting easier to find things to praise Matthew for.  He was basking in our praise—soaking it up.  After one week, he was a totally different child.  He was pleasant, obedient, and would go entire days without getting into trouble.

      This experience taught me an important lesson:  Children who don’t get enough positive attention will act out to regain the attention they crave—even if the only attention they can get is negative attention.  And once a pattern (or habit) of only negative attention occurs, the child loses self-esteem, and spirals down even farther into bad behavior–without knowing why.  In response, parents find it harder and harder to like the child they love so much.  Many times they even develop their own bad habits and behavior patterns; they continually notice the “bad” in their children and overlook the good, thus initiating a self-perpetuating cycle. 

      It’s up to us as adults to stop such negative patterns in their tracks, and help our children feel successful and good about themselves.  It’s up to us to give our children the praise and attention they need. 

      Not any kind of praise will do.  Praise has to be specific.  Praise the behavior—not the child, and name any positive character traits you see in your children.  Avoid saying things like, “Good boy,” or “Good job.”  Instead, say something more specific, such as:  “I like the way you came right away when I called you.  You are so obedient!”  Or, “Thank-you for picking up your toys so cheerfully; you are such a big helper!” 

       Non-verbal “praise” works too.  Make a concious effort to smile at your children; rub their backs or ruffle their hair affectionately to communicate that you are pleased with their behavior.  Be sure to make the praise as immediate as possible, as well; this insures maximum impact.

      Try the power of praise and see what happens.  Maybe you’ll have a “miracle” of your own.  

 © 2010 Susan Lemons all rights reserved.  Copyrighted materials may not be re-distributed or re-posted without express permission from the author.









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