Monday, January 9, 2012

the power of praise; catch me being good!

When I first started working in the school system as a Paraeducator, I was right out of college and four months pregnant. My degree is in English, History, and Women's Studies; I had completed one education class, Foundations of Education, a course that focused more on the history and philosophy of education than actual practice.

So there I was, thrown into the school system with no training except my own life experiences, and paired with a third grade student with significant physical needs and behavior struggles. He was also extremely bright and prone to argue.  About a third of the way into the school year, he turned to me and said, quite emphatically, "Why do you always catch me being BAD? Why can't your eyes ever catch me being GOOD?"

Now, if we're being honest, my initial internal response was, "You have to actually BE GOOD for that to happen." What I said was, "I see you do lots of good things. I'm sorry you feel like I don't see that. Do you think we should work on that?" He agreed that we should, and I promised to come up with a solution. "How about for now, we just put this post-it note on your desk, and every time I catch you listening to the teacher, staying on task, using nice words, and doing the right thing, I will make a tally mark. Then if you get five tally marks, you can have a sticker." He thought this sounded great.

I never came up with a more permanent solution, and he never needed the sticker, although I did give it to him as promised. Every time I came and made a tally mark on that post-it, he beamed. All he wanted was acknowledgement of his efforts, because he was trying even if he wasn't always successful.  This strategy worked for him; he argued less and felt more confident in himself.

Leaving this child the following year, in the middle of the year no less, was painful for both of us, but he was ready for more independence and I needed to move to preschool for a variety of reasons. I have always taken this lesson of "catching being good" with me to the younger children who have special needs, with whom it is so easy to become frustrated. Often times they are so hungry for attention that they will do just about anything, including climbing furniture and hitting friends, to gain it. When we give them attention for positive behavior we reinforce what we want and help extinguish what we don't want. If they are receiving attention for sitting on the carpet or sharing a toy, there's no need for disruptive behavior.

In preschool, though, I learned a bit of a new language. Most importantly was "good choice" and "bad choice." Children aren't bad or good, they make choices just like adults do.  Most of us want help learning from the times we make a mistake, and we all want a pat on the back when we succeed.

Here's an example of a very simple chart you could use. You could even make a page with five of them on it so that the entire week would be visible. This particular student needed to focus on short periods of time, therefore I used one sheet per day . If he was given ultimatums that were too big or too far away, he almost always failed, not because (like some preschool and kindergarten students), it was too far away for  him to remember but because the idea of "being good" for that long felt unattainable.
You might even use a smiley face stamp or sticker instead of tally marks. You would also have to decide if the student would receive an additional reward for a certain number of tallies.


My name is Erika and I blog over at the other lion about life with my son, Punkin, who has Fragile X Syndrome. Fragile X Syndrome is the leading cause of inherited mental impairment and the most common known single gene cause of autism. I have been working as a paraeducator for a little over 7 years, and in preschool special education for a little over 5 years.


  1. thank you for reminding me to give positive compliments today!!! :)

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience Erika! You have posted a topic that is extremely important.
    My masters thesis was done on self perception -- and I strongly support and promote focusing on positive behaviors because it makes a remarkable difference in the way children learn to see themselves.
    You have pointed out a very important aspect of this, that I share when I speak on early brain development.... It is all about in what way we focus our attention. We can choose to pay attention to the negative behaviors or the positive behaviors. And, ultimately it is best if we can help children learn to self evaluate rather than seeking and depending on praise and approval from others.
    Thanks again for sharing your story for the benefit of many children!

  3. Hi there "Lion"... I wanted to tell you GOOD CHOICE for this post! I have a kiddo who has Asperger's... well some days he VERY has it, other days eh, not so much... to the point I sometimes take his efforts for granted. Whether I see it on the outside, he ALWAYS has it on the inside. I will take "he is still trying, even when he is not successful" from your article and keep it in the forefront of my mind when I'm feeling frustrated. Wow... one little line... SOO much thought about it after. Thank you for that... err, the rest of the article was GREAT as well!... Much luck and love to you and your little lion!


  4. @Jane That may be one of my favorite comments ever.

  5. Love it Joanna... I enjoyed pinning images from that wonderful article. Congrats!

  6. I love that you're sharing your experiences here, Erika! Great reminder for all parents and teachers to not just focus on problem behaviors - and helpful advice for parents of children with special needs. I pinned your post to my Special Needs Pinterest board at


We would love to hear from you! Please feel free to leave a comment below....

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...