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.

What do NAPLAN results really mean for my child?

Most of you should now have NAPLAN results for your children.

After looking at all the dots, bands and triangles and then reading all the negative press that NAPLAN gets, you might be asking yourself what the point of it all really is.


While I am not a fan of the format NAPLAN takes (multiple-choice questions, for example, in my opinion, are inadequate on many levels) I believe it does have its place.

Imagine, for example, that you are a year 6 teacher and that the majority of your students score at or above the average national levels for, say, their Spelling, Reading and Grammar.  You would give yourself a pat on the back.

If their Numeracy results are lower than the national average, though, you would hopefully take stock and question the way you are teaching Maths.

For a good teacher, such criticism is vital to professional improvement.  In other countries (such as the UK), there are individuals (see Ofsted) who are employed to evaluate teaching and teachers in schools, but in Australia, where we seem to be constantly strapped for cash when it comes to education, this is not the case.

In theory, then, NAPLAN should improve the quality of teaching.

What does research tell us?

Results of official research on whether NAPLAN testing has helped students’ performance is mixed.  Even the official Wikipeida page that explains NAPLAN devotes an entire section to the ‘validity and reliability of NAPLAN‘.  There are even several sites such as Say No to NAPLAN that feature passionate well-researched texts articulating what is wrong with the system.

Like it or not, it seems NAPLAN is here to stay.  In fact the South Australian government announced that in response to our rather woeful performance, particularly in numeracy, it would implement another set of tests – PAT or Progressive Achievement Tests – across the board in the hope, I suppose, that more testing would improve students’ testing results.

What does all this tell me about MY child’s performance?

The NAPLAN results are probably best taken as providing a general overview of how your child is able to perform in the various areas compared to the rest of the students in the school and country.  For those who are curious about how their child’s school ranks, the performance of all schools is listed in the My School website.

You might have noticed, though, that although the results will tell you what types of questions your child got wrong (the Numeracy section is quite detailed here), the results do not provide you with access to the questions themselves, making it difficult to know exactly what your child had problems with.

You will also need to take into account the possibility that some of the answers that were marked as being correct were guesses.  Then there are several other factors to consider; did your child have a cold on the day, or do they simply not perform well under test conditions?

In the end, it is still your child’s teacher who is best placed to tell you exactly how your child is performing.  While testing will hopefully keep teachers on their toes, the success of our education system still relies on having dedicated, passionate people working with our children.

In an environment where there are many other disciplines that provide higher pay, great teachers are to be applauded.  When testing schemes like NAPLAN are (hopefully!) in a continual process of refinement, these teachers get on with the job of teaching our current generation of young people.

How to motivate your child

“I know he can do it.  He just isn’t motivated.”  This is a phrase I seem to hear on a daily basis.  As parents we obviously want our children to achieve in life to the best of their ability, so it can be incredibly frustrating when we see them perform at a level below what we know they are capable of.  But is it reasonable to expect that our children should view things as being important just because we do?

We all know the statement (most of us have probably used it many times):  “As long as you’re living under my roof, you live by my rules.”  And it works pretty well when you’re laying down the law and setting the rules.  The trouble is that it is extremely difficult to expect children to put effort into their academic studies in the same way that they would follow a simple ‘rule’.

So what action should we take?  If you’ve tried nagging, yelling, punishing and generally pulling your hair out you have probably found that none of these methods are particularly successful.  In fact all of this probably makes you more worried about the situation, which makes you yell more and, well, you get the picture.  The best you can hope for will be that your child simply complies to get you off his back.

Perhaps we need to step back for a moment and think about what motivation actually is.  I like this definition from successconsciousness.com:


Motivation is the inner power that pushes you toward taking action toward achievement.


The term “inner power” I think is crucially important.  Often we feel that our children’s achievements are our responsibility but if we start by understanding that the motivation to achieve actually comes from within them we have the beginning of a clearer picture of the situation.

The reason that the yelling and screaming does not usually work is that we are projecting our worries upon our children.  We really need to step back and ask ourselves what makes our children tick.  Although there are thousands of parenting sites that will provide you with lists of actions to take, I believe parenting is really a process of asking ourselves what we can do to help our children understand and discover their talents.

If we understand how our children think, we can also establish boundaries for our children in ways that are tailored for them.  We might even negotiate certain rules.  The outcome is almost always better if a conditional task being completed becomes the ‘motivation’ rather than our yelling.

My advice would be to become an observer as much as possible.  Find out what your child likes, what they don’t like and why it is they like to do certain things.  Most importantly, try to get some discourse going whenever possible and then listen – (don’t judge – just listen) – to what is it they say.

Helping our children to harness their own ‘inner power’ is by far the most satisfying aspect of parenting.  It is important to realise though, that this is a process – there is no quick fix!  Just as we would like them to be motivated and continually strive to achieve more in their lives, we also need to be continually reminding ourselves that we need to step back, look listen and learn as much as we can about our children.

New Maths techniques – video samples

I often have requests from parents as to the best approach they should take with their children when helping with homework.  This is a valid question, as using an ‘old’ technique might result in a correct answer, but it could also lead to quite a lot of confusion if the teacher at school is doing things differently!

Following are three videos that explain, using simple examples, the difference between what I learnt when I was at school and the new techniques used today.

Subtraction – counting forward to take away – what might seem like a mathematical oxymoron actually makes sense!

Multiplication using partitioning


Division using taking away – bear with me; it makes sense by the end!

Getting your child organised – a dad’s perspective

Parenting is tough.  When our children are young we naturally want to do everything for them but modern parenting books tell us we need to let life teach its own lessons from an early age.  Surely there must be some middle ground?

I have read a few of these books and I understand logically that I should let life teach my daughter as many lessons as possible, but then I just can’t feel OK that she might go hungry one day because she forgot to pack her lunch.  After all, she’s only seven.  So I compromise.

While she is getting ready (which involves about 5 minutes of actual ‘getting ready for school time’ and 20 minutes of ‘looking at myself in front of the mirror’ – something I’ll have to leave for another ‘blog .. ) I will sneak a peek at the contents of her bag.  Then, when she’s walking out the door I’ll say, “Do you think you might just want to quickly check that you’ve got everything before we go?” hoping desperately that now that her hair has the appropriate ribbons fitted to her liking, she will realise that food might be something important to consider.

The fixer

I think I might find it particularly difficult because as a dad I know I have a natural urge to be the ‘fixer’ in the family and so stepping back and realising that my little girl is able to do things for herself can evoke in me a mix of pain and pride.  I have found, though, that with perseverance (on my part) she is becoming more independent, has higher self-esteem and is basically happier with herself all-round.  For what it is worth, here are my tips!

Perception is key.  They have to think that you are going to stop remembering everything for them.  Doing this with love is often the challenge.  In the mornings, for example, when we’re all tired and don’t really have the energy for a lot of mind-games, what works for me is turning a statement such as, “Hurry up – we’re late!” into a question such as, “What time are we going today?” followed by, “so how much time do you have then until we go?”  Believe it or not, she now tells me if it’s getting close to 8 o’clock.

When things don’t go to plan

Despite your best efforts, your child is eventually going to forget something.  At this point, don’t ever say, “I told you so!”  While you might feel validated momentarily this won’t last long, as all that will happen is that you’ll come across as being mean (which means they’ll be twice as likely to do whatever it was again next time just to spite you) and they will feel stupid.  At this point, hugs are great.  As are cookies.  And if you really want to have the world come across as the bad guy and open channels of communication, treat this moment as a real opportunity and offer ice-cream!

We all love our kids.  They’re adorable (most of the time).  Take it from a Dad: seeing them growing up and starting to take on life on their own is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have.  If you think about it, the ‘wow’ moments you have as a parent come from seeing them do things, not from the times you do things for them.

We’ll be back next week with more videos explaining new maths techniques.  In the mean time, if you found something helpful in this article, please share it with your friends below.  Do you have questions or comments?  We want to hear from you, please submit them below.  

Helping your child with Maths homework

Chances are, if you have a child in primary school, you might have felt some frustration if you have tried to help them with their Maths homework lately.  Let me guess; you told them how to set out the sum in columns, you told them how to carry and borrow and you were met with frowns and complaints of; “But that’s not how we do it at school …”    

It’s not you ..  

If you feel you are experiencing a generation gap, or that you have lost your ability to communicate effectively with your child, don’t despair.  The problem is not you.  It’s Maths.  Or more properly, as it is known today, “numeracy”.

You see, Maths has changed.  The numbers are still the same, but the techniques are wildly different.  It is so ‘revolutionary’ that in the United States, they actually call it ‘New Math’.  It involves such ideas as counting forward to work out subtraction sums, taking away to do division calculations, number lines, chunking (or partitioning) and arrays. Confused?  You’re not alone.

The debate

There are experts who are passionate supporters (this article from the BBC attempts to clarify the new techniques but I fear actually makes them seem quite complicated) and critics (the title alone of this piece is designed to ring alarm bells) of the new methods, but it all actually makes more sense than we might think.

Let’s look at the idea of counting forward to work out the answer to a subtraction sum.  Although it might seem a mathematical oxymoron, it actually just takes advantage of the fact that we tend to be better at counting forwards than backwards.  If we want to work out the answer to, say, 85-68, we would start at 68 and count to 70 (2), then to 80 (10) and then to 85 (5).  Then we add these numbers up to get 17.  As we get better we can add the numbers as we go.  Not only are we able to work out the answers to subtraction ‘sums’ but avoiding the need to ‘borrow’ makes mental calculations much less prone to careless errors.  It also helps conceptually if the question were phrased; “One string is 85cm long and another is 68cm.  How much longer is the longer piece?”

There is no doubt that even most teachers have to approach these techniques with an open mind.  With practice, though, children are able to actually understand more of the processes they use, rather than them simply being a mechanical process.  ‘Chunking’ is a good example.  To calculate 54 multiplied by 3, students are taught to understand that they are really working out what 54 groups of 3 is.  Broken down , this would be done as 50 x 3 = 150 and 4 x 3 = 12.  150 + 12 gives us the answer of 162.  Again, no carrying is necessary and the idea of counting from a ‘ten’ (150) makes the number work easy.

The bottom line

Not convinced?  The general principle is that the focus should be on understanding and application, rather than just rote-learning a series of steps.  It should also be noted that tests such as NAPLAN are based on the assumption that students understand these new techniques.  A question might be phrased; “If 138 x 6 is 828, what is 139 x 6?”  Rather than jumping to a long-multiplication sum, the student merely needs to add one more ‘lot’ of 6 onto 138.

If you have any questions about what your child should be doing, you can always check the official website of ACARA (the people who design the curriculum) here.  Also remember that at Mesh we are passionate about knowing which techniques work and why.  Feel free to arrange an appointment to sit down with us and ask any questions you might have.

Did you find something useful you can use in this article?  Please share it with your friends below.  Do you have questions or comments?  We want to hear from you, please submit them below.

Reading Comprehension – boost your child’s skills

Many of us forget that learning to read is not the same thing as reading comprehension.  There is no doubt that there are thousands of great books out there and reading for enjoyment is a fantastic passion to foster in your child, but there is a big difference between active and passive reading.

Passive vs Active reading

Many of us think that just because our child reads a lot, he/she should be good at all literacy-related tasks, but the truth is that reading can be a little like watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie; we let it wash over us without having to think too much.  Reading more will increase our fluency and speed, but it won’t always help with our level of understanding.

I realise that this might be a controversial view as most of us assume that reading increases our vocabulary bank and this, in turn, helps with understanding.  The mind, though, is a wonderful thing.  It will compensate for not understanding words here and there by defining a context and allowing us to continue with the thread of what we are reading.  Unfortunately, a single word can vastly alter our ability to understand the author’s intent.  Consider the following sentence;

His maniacal laughter could be heard throughout the house.

Obviously, without understanding the word maniacal, we can still proceed with the story, but the sentence loses its intended meaning.  In the context of school-based assessment, where a passage needs to be broken down and analysed in detail, this makes a big difference.

How to help

So then; let us assume that you have a child who enjoys reading (I will leave the topic of how to get children to read for another post!).  How do we get them to understand more of what they have read?  One way for you to help is simply to talk about what they are reading.  If they are enjoying the book, it might be a good way of striking up a conversation about something they are interested in at the dinner table, instead of the standard; “So, how was school today?”

The trick is to know what to ask.  This will depend on the age of your child, the type of book and a range of other factors to really know what to do (it’s why us teacher-folk get paid the big bucks – I wish ..) but here are some starter questions for you.  Keep in mind that on the first try you might get the typical mono-syllabic response that teens usually offer, but persevere and it will pay off.  You might ask;

  • What is the story about?  Ask questions about the sequence of events – what happened first, next etc.
  • Who are the main characters?  Which one do you like best?  Why?  What are their personalities?  Are any of them like you?  How?
  • What’s your favourite part so far?  Why?
  • What do you think is going to happen next?
  • Is this one like any other books you have read?  How?
  • Would you have changed it if you were the author?  How?
  • For older students, ask them if it was believable in the context of the story.  For example, sc-fi or fantasy novels often exist in a world that has its own rules but then events sometimes don’t make sense.  It is what sets successful series such as Star Wars apart from the plethora of other novels and movies.  Getting your child to be critical of what he/she is reading is often one of the best ways to see if they really understand it.


Hopefully as time goes by you might find that your little one might actually start to come to you and ask for help with things they don’t understand about the books they are reading.  That’s when you know you’re really making a difference!  At this point try to keep things relevant.  Rather than giving a ‘dictionary-style’ meaning, put the word/phrase into a sentence that describes a recent event.

Keeping everything as relaxed and relevant as possible should aid in the discussion process.  Who knows; as well as helping boost your child’s comprehension skills, it might also give you some insight into what your child likes and open some doors to meaningful communication!

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