Today’s article is a reminder that your classroom rules, boundaries and expectations can be reinforced through careful use of language in verbal instructions, rewards and sanctions

‘Catch the student behaving well and praise him,’ is a classic piece of behaviour management advice. The obvious drawbacks to this advice are generally:

  • the overall perceptions of the observer: Some members of staff are so negative they will insist that it is impossible to see a particular pupil doing something well
  • failure to use the opportunity to reinforce your rules and expectations.

When using praise it is all too easy to become a ‘praise robot’. Random comments (such as ‘That’s excellent! Well Done! I’m really pleased’) are often lost on the recipient as they do not fully understand why the comment has been made – Why is that excellent? Well done for what? Why are you really pleased?

When teaching aspects of behaviour, use the same model as when you are teaching any other part of the school curriculum. That model is:

  • Explain what is required in clear, non-negotiable statements or instructions.
  • Check for understanding by questioning students about your instructions.
  • Give the students opportunity to practice.
  • Be consistent and regularly refer to the original instructions.

When using praise with any student, there is then plenty of opportunity to both offer a word of praise and also reinforce your agreed rules.

Some students see many of your verbal instructions and comments as an annoying interruption to their classroom time. They will often describe members of staff as ‘always going on about something’ or ‘constantly picking on me’. Verbal reinforcement is intended to not just have a direct and positive effect on the target student, but also on all other students who can hear the dialogue. For example:

‘Well done, Gary, you have put your things away.’

‘Thanks, Michelle, you’re looking at me and listening.’

These are the types of verbal reinforcement that will not only deliver your approval and praise to a particular individual, but will also remind all other students in earshot about your expectations.

Practical Tips
Setting a positive atmosphere in your teaching environment is essential if you are to meet the needs of students who crave attention and are prepared to do almost anything (good and not so good) to receive it. Contrary to what you may think, most students also enjoy your approval, although they may not openly admit to it! Using verbal reinforcement meets all those needs. Your phrasing becomes positive rather than negative, ie:

‘John, I said no running in the corridor!’ becomes ‘John, thanks for walking in the corridor.’

‘Michelle, hello! You’re keeping us waiting,’ becomes ‘Michelle – good, you’re looking at me – I can see you’ve finished.’

Strangely, use of this technique not only has a positive effect on the target student (who no longer feels that you are nagging) but it produces additional results:

1. It forces you to think carefully about what you are saying and how you are going to say it. The effect is quite powerful. Your thought processes and non-verbal mannerisms become positive. This is read by both the target student and others in the class.

2. Your style of delivery will be noticed by the other members of the class and they too will receive the clear reinforcement being delivered to the target student. This eliminates the need for you to constantly nag the class with negative reminders.

For many members of staff, this is not a technique which is readily and easily brought into regular practice. You may well need to prepare some verbal reinforcement comments and to make them part of your everyday language with students. As with all verbal techniques, however, it is worth remembering that in all forms of received communication, more than 80% is non-verbal. You may practice getting the word content right, but if your body language, tone and volume is telling the student something quite different then at best the technique will be ineffective. At worst, it could be perceived as sarcasm by the student. Either way, the intended outcome will be missed and the situation could escalate.

Whatever form of verbal reinforcement you choose to use, make sure that your non-verbal messages are saying the same thing!

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.