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.

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.

2015 – A Testing Time?

With another New Year come new challenges, changes and opportunities. Since last year’s NAPLAN results there has been a lot of talk about what should be done to improve standards in this state. While the education system has been flailing in recent years, the government has at least been making some decisions. Here is the lowdown on one of the latest moves.

Firstly, chances are your child already sits tests on an annual basis at the school. These are more than likely PAT (Progressive Achievement Tests) designed by ACER (the Australian Council for Educational Research) and normally they are used internally for teachers to collaborate on what specific needs your child might have.

What is interesting is that from this year, the government has decided that it will administer these tests state-wide in an effort to work out why our NAPLAN results seem to be so poor in comparison to the rest of the country.

What do more tests mean for my child?

While I am not particularly convinced that the correct response to poor test results is more testing, at least this indicates the government’s concern regarding student’s core skills. What does this all mean for your child? Potentially, the more informed teachers are aware of students’ performance across key areas, the better they will be able to tailor their delivery of the curriculum content.

In reality, though, for many students it just means more testing, which also equates to more stress. Unlike NAPLAN, these tests are designed to be administered for every year level, yet because they are designed for internal use, unless you ask specifically for the results, you may never be aware of the outcome.

When you add to the points above the fact that PAT use another entirely different marking scheme to NAPLAN and this will mean more retraining for teachers, it is clear that there will be quite a few issues for the Department of Education to overcome in their administration. Whatever your point of view, it seems that testing, even at primary levels, is here to stay.

How does all this relate to tuition?

My belief is that tuition is about more than just teaching students Maths and English. Tuition should have the goals of fostering self-confidence and equipping children with skills that allow them to develop to the best of their abilities at its core. The tests above are not the type that should be specifically studied for – they are designed to test students’ ability to problem solve and apply the general concepts that have been learnt at school in a variety of contexts.

Tuition, if it is done correctly, can provide students with the skills and confidence they need to approach testing positively. While it is important to note that test results are not necessarily the end goal of any process, learning how to cope under stressful conditions does provide practice for what is to come later in life. Private tuition (and indeed schooling in general) should help prepare students for such experiences and present them in a positive learning environment.

If you have any questions about the upcoming tests, feel free to call us and book an appointment. We keep in the loop to make sure that you and your child remain educated and informed about changes that take place in the field of education.

How much should we praise our children?

You know the scenario.  The latest picture is presented to you.  It has long thin legs and fuzzy blue hair.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be told whether it’s you or a rabbit.  Make sure you have a think about that squiggle of yellow in the top right corner, because what looks logically like a sun might just as well be a bird or a plane, or a fairy.

But your child has just given it to you.  And that makes it beautiful.  You feel compelled to tell your little one that it is the most beautiful picture in the world, because, well, in that instant when the gesture touches your heart, it is.

Can too much praise do more harm than good?

But is telling your 7-year-old that he is a little ‘Picasso’ really the best way to give praise?  Studies have actually shown that awarding insincere praise can sometimes do more harm than good.  Youngsters who were told their work was ‘amazing’ or ‘perfect’ were found to choose less challenging tasks in the future than those who were told that they ‘tried hard’.  They were even found to be more likely to lie about their test marks in the future to cover up ‘poor’ performance.

The problem seems to be that too much praise can be demotivating.  Children never know when they have done something really wonderful if they are told that every action is ‘absolutely brilliant’.  We also have to remember that kids are often smarter than we realise.  They know when you mean what you say and if you constantly give comments such as, “That’s terrific, love.  You’re such a brilliant artist!” in response to everything that’s put in front of you, then eventually your offspring will see through your lack of sincerity.

Encouragement vs. Praise

Now, obviously we all need encouragement, but the key is in the wording you use.  In fact, there is a fine, but important, line between encouragement and praise.  Encouragement recognises that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process and that it’s OK to recognise and work through them.  Praise focusses purely on the end result.  Rewarding your child’s effort is tricky as it means getting involved in their interests and what makes them tick, but if you can recognise the effort required in even a simple thing such as a ‘portrait’ of you with blue hair, it will really strike a chord between you and your youngster.  As a parent, I know it’s those moments that really tug at the heart-strings.

So don’t get me wrong; praise is an important parenting tool.  It just seems that often we might need to employ a little more restraint, otherwise we could find ourselves running out of arsenal that we can use to motivate our children.  Taking a real interest and offering genuine, thoughtful comments might also present countless opportunities to build real bonds that will last into the teenage years and beyond.

Is being great at Maths really so important?


I find it interesting that at parties it is quite common to hear someone say; “I was never good at Maths.” It seems there is no embarrassment associated with this statement at all. It would be highly unlikely, though, that somebody would be comfortable admitting they are illiterate.

I often wonder why it is that we assume that everyone should be able to read and write, while it seems entirely acceptable that many people should have poor Maths skills. This interesting article from the New York Times suggests this is because we “think of math ability as something we’re born with, as if there’s a “math gene” that either you inherit or you don’t.”

The upside

Looking from a different perspective, because Maths is seen as being so challenging, it is my experience that when students do make progress in this subject (particularly if they have struggled in the past) their confidence in general receives an enormous boost.

There is no doubt that literacy and numeracy lay the cornerstones for the core foundational skills that students need. Confidence in Maths also often opens doors to opportunities that students might not have previously considered.

Can all children be good at Maths?

It is my belief that all children have the potential to perform well in Maths, but this, of course, depends on a range of considerations.

In addition to factors such as consistency and an awareness of how well each child is really grasping concepts being presented, the actual teaching of the subject obviously needs to employ the right approach. Unfortunately, at present there is a lot of debate as to what this actually is. The Australian curriculum progresses through its metamorphosis and NAPLAN receives more and more criticism.

It seems to me, from my experience, that the key to children becoming successful at school within the current system is still (in principle, at least) fairly simple.  As confidence in Maths stems from having a solid foundation, the only way to have a real impact on performance is to find out where a child is at and then build on this knowledge.

What does it take to see success?

It is no longer enough to get students to sit in their rooms (or behind a desk at school) and rote-learn subject matter. Maths can make sense, but only if each component builds from what the previous one hinted at.

Of the hundreds of students I have had the pleasure of teaching, each one made progress and many excelled. The most rewarding aspect, for me, though, is not just the academic improvement, but the change in attitude that I often see once confidence is regained. So, upon reflection, I would say; “Yes, being great at Maths really is important. It’s also entirely achievable!”



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.