Positive Reinforcement (Getting Things Done and Keeping Your Sanity)

Waking up early, packing the bag, arriving at school on time and getting homework finished.  It all starts again in less than a week!  Surely there must be a better way than getting through it all than last year?

There are plenty of sites that will help you ‘de-stress your morning routine’.  This one even has pictures!  I also came across this (semi) humorous page titled “26 Simple Tricks To Make Your Kids Do Whatever You Want.”

Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if there were a magic technique that would work in every situation?  Some sort of holy grail of parenting that would allow you to organise, motivate and promote healthy behaviour in your child?

Amongst all the buzzwords out there, “Positive Reinforcement” are the two that seem to provide the most hope.  Who wouldn’t want to be seen as a positive parent who raises positive children?

The issue comes when we look at what this new catchphrase means.  It is important not to get things confused with the idea of praising everything your child does unnecessarily.  This type of ‘Parental Overvaluation’ can often lead to narcissism in children.

When your little one comes to you with big proud eyes displaying her latest squiggle of colours and blobs, rather than just blurting out, “Wow!  That’s amazing – you’re the best artist in the entire world!”  the idea is to comment on either the effort that was put in (“Gee, you obviously worked really hard on that”) or some detail that indicates you actually paid attention to what she has done (“I really love the blue that you used here – can you tell me about it?”).

The biggest benefit of positive reinforcement, though, is (at least in principle) its ability to negotiate outcomes without conflict.  This is also the hardest aspect to put into practice and the most confusing to understand.  What follows, then, is an extremely simple summary based on personal experience that will hopefully encourage you to get on the bandwagon.

I have found firstly that it helps to explain the situation rather than laying blame.  Rather than flailing your hands and exclaiming, “I can’t believe you spilled your drink on the carpet again!  How many times have I told you not to bring drinks into the lounge?” I have found that it actually helps to explain the situation.  “If we spill drink on the carpet, it attracts ants.  That’s why it’s better to keep drinks out of the lounge room.”

Saying things calmly also helps.  Yelling invites more yelling and (most of the time) seems not to have any more effect than saying the same thing at a lower volume.  I have a sneaking suspicion that children also learn from modelling.  Using rhetorical questions at high volume while flapping one’s arms in the air does not set a great example.

The next thing I had to come to terms with is that the idea of ‘positive’ does not always equal ‘pleasant’.  If the explanation method doesn’t seem to be working (and sometimes it needs quite a few repetitions to have effect) then letting ‘natural consequences’ take effect may help.

This has nothing to do with any spiritual holistic beliefs.  It may be something as simple as agreeing that screen time is tied to room cleanliness and that if the room isn’t clean there is no time on the iPad.  Sticking to this is vital.  If you establish rules (and these need to be ‘negotiated’, rather than dictated) then your child needs to see that you are serious about sticking to these.

Also, your wording has a lot to do with how successful this will all be.  Talking about screen time as being a reward for keeping the room tidy works better than saying that if their room is not tidy then they will not be get any screen time.

Mrs. Bhandakar summarised most of this in an excellent article titled “How to Go From a Nagging Parent to a Master Motivator” and while I’m not there yet, I also take solace in her advice to occasionally “put things in perspective and let things slide.”  The main thing is to realise that (and yes, I know this comes across like a cliché) you are not going to get it right all the time.  But even if this strategy helps me to get to know the way my daughter ticks a little better then I feel I’m making progress.

Learning and Gadgets

It used to be that you could control how much you wanted your child to use technology, but these days the current trend towards using iPads and laptops at school means that our children are using such gadgets at an earlier age and also in environments other than the home. There are plenty of discussions about the pitfalls of social media but we also need to ask ourselves whether using such devices actually does enhance our children’s learning at all.

The positive

Advocates of the move away from textbooks and pen and paper would say that the main advantage is cost. Often textbooks are expensive and become out of date quickly, whereas electronic versions can be updated for a fraction of the cost and this can also be done easily and as often as necessary, saving the school money and time.

Of course, then there is Mr. Google. Everyone can have access to the greatest minds on the planet in a matter of seconds. These days you don’t even have to type the words – simply say “OK Google” and the next words you utter will be converted into a search that scours the Earth for thousands of pages of related content. (This makes me wonder why we need an education system at all!)

Third, student engagement is obviously higher when computers are involved. I was amazed when we took my daughter to the museum the other day and she seemed more interested in the interactive touch-screen summaries than the exhibits themselves.

The not-so-positive

Just because there are a lot of cost savings from using technology, this doesn’t make it cheap. First of all, you need to have the devices themselves, which have come down a lot in price, but will still cost at least $400 for something decent (that would buy quite a few textbooks..). Then there is the cost of putting the infrastructure in place and keeping it up to date. Bear in mind that most schools have a whole IT department to take care of crashed (sometimes literally) laptops and WiFi bottlenecks. This runs into the many thousands of dollars (think of all the textbooks that could be bought here, probably even with room for some new sporting equipment ..).

Google also has its drawbacks. Just because there is a lot of information out there, this does not mean it is all relevant. Often search results can reach into the millions and even the most diligent student can have trouble sorting through this. Then there is always the temptation to ‘Google’ an answer rather than working it out yourself – something teachers need to factor in to the assignments and projects they set. The problem becomes promoting Google as a tool and not just a solution.

As far as student engagement goes, there is no doubt that kids are less troublesome when there is a screen in front of them, but I have a suspicion that if we collected data on the amount of time spent actually researching versus time spent on Facebook that the latter would account for upwards of 90%.

What does formal research tell us?

It is interesting to note that studies (that I read about online!) have found that students performed better when taking notes with a pen and paper than those who took notes on their computer. Despite this, it seems schools believe that using more technology is the way to go and I don’t think that any of us are naïve enough to believe that any amount of protesting will be enough to halt its march into our education system.

Technology, then, really is a tool that is just as effective as the hands it is put in. Now, more than ever, teachers in our society are burdened with the responsibility of guiding our young people into its effective use. The opportunities that present themselves have the potential to invoke enormous passion from teachers and students alike, but there is also the danger of wasted resources, time and money on a scale like never before.

I think we need to be mindful that today’s gadgets will quickly become tomorrow’s landfill and that just planting a new device in the hands of a youngster does not guarantee a smarter student.


What do you think about this topic?  We would love to hear your views.

Learning for retention

Your child walks through the door and you ask, “So, what did you do at school today?” to which you usually get a response of “Not much” or something similar.  While you might just think that he/she is typically absent-minded the truth is that we only retain a small fraction of the information we are presented with.  Most of it is trimmed from the memory as being irrelevant and forgotten.

There are lots of charts and graphs around that demonstrate how inefficient our memory is and we also know that old-fashioned techniques such as rote learning are definitely not the best way to learn and retain information.

For students at school, this all presents a problem.  It is interesting, though, that even though they may not have a clue about the maths they did this afternoon (or if they even did any maths!), they will inevitably be able to perfectly recall the players on all the league football teams, or sing by heart whatever top 20 number they might have listened to a few times (OK, so I realise these songs don’t have that many words, but it still serves as an illustrative example).

So then, obviously there is the capacity to learn, remember and recall.  The difference for most students between, say, Maths and Football, is twofold; firstly, there is the way learning takes place and then there is also the level of emotions that children associate to the task at hand.

Learning first of all needs student engagement.  When teaching someone to ride a bike, for example, you can spend hours explaining what to do but until they actually get on the bike, the learner really won’t make much progress.  Although such hands-on, physical activities are not always possible, at Mesh we use several techniques to get students involved in their learning – some of which you can use at home as well.

For example, I use this simple method for making sure I am getting through to children, but the reason it works is because of what was discussed above.  Once a child seems to have mastered a concept, the best way to get to know if they really understand what they are doing is to have them verbally explain the process to you.  It is surprising how many students can ‘get the answer’ but can’t tell you how they got there!  Being able to explain to you what they have done gets them involved in their learning.  It also clarifies the process in their mind and gives their self-confidence a real boost.

There are many things that can be done to foster an emotional engagement to learning.  Rewards-based systems (when set up properly) work well in the classroom and at home.  Plotting progress (where achievable goals have been set) also works wonders.  It is also important to realise that as well as setting and achieving goals an often-overlooked aspect of this is reflection.  To enable a young learner to feel good about his/her learning, it is important that they be able to look back at where they were and see the progress that has been made.  Doing this makes it easier for children to set long-term goals as they will start to realise that getting the day-to-day tasks done results in overall progress.

At Mesh we try to engage students as much as possible in what they do with us.  For students working on literacy, for example, we discuss specific goals that are to be focussed on when a writing exercise is set and we talk about how well these were achieved.  We go through what worked and what didn’t.  In other words, we involve students in the planning, goal setting and reflection stages of the process and we make sure they know that it’s OK that some of their work is not fantastic because this gives us a focus to work through next time.

Mainly I believe that we have to understand that it is not practical to think that we can just pour information into a child’s mind and expect that it will bubble away, be processed properly and be ready for retrieval at a later date.  For this to happen, children need to be actively engaged in how they learn and they need to have an emotional attachment to the learning process itself.