How to Create a More Positive Classroom

. . . Even If You’re Not a Cheerleader

not a cheerleader

image credit: Sanderlin

If you’re always super positive and love teaching your kids to shine their halos and kiss their brains, you don’t need this post.  You can share your ideas for class cheers here.

But some of us–myself included–just aren’t natural cheerleaders.  It’s not that I mean to be critical, because I do enjoy being a teacher and a mom and I do like listening to kids.  It’s more that I’m insanely detail-oriented and there are just so many things that need to be corrected. With a 3 year-old, those things include “don’t ride the cat like a pony,” “don’t use the waffle as a stethoscope” and “please take your finger out of my ear.”  Those are non-negotiable, right?

And yet my daughter went through a phase when she was two where she made it very clear how frustrating it was to hear so much criticism.  If I had made several correcting statements in a row, she would shake her head, throw her hands up in the air and declare “No. More. Of. This!”   

She’s always had a flair for the dramatic, but she also had a point. And in my experience, teenagers are not that different from toddlers.  The list of things that need correcting (don’t flip your water bottle, take your elbow off his head, no you can’t bullet point) seems almost as long and almost as non-negotiable.  And yet, I can see in some of their faces the barely constrained desire to throw in the towel and say “no more of this.”

How much criticism is too much?  The psychologist John Gottman claims he can predict whether couples will divorce with over 90% accuracy in as little as 3 minutes (really).  One of his predictors is the ratio of positive comments to negative ones, and he claims marriages are stronger when there are 5 times as many positive comments as negative ones.

There seems to be some disagreement over the ideal ratio in classrooms, but most people suggest 3-to-1.  And while I’ve never made an effort to actually tally (I don’t know how you could when there’s so much going on in class), I have noticed that if I can keep the overall tone positive, it makes a huge difference.  More kids participate.  I’m less exhausted.  We’re more likely to have those moments when breakthroughs are made and real learning is happening.

So here’s a list of some of the things this somewhat Negative Nelson has learned to do to make class more positive.

Class structure and procedures

Of course, there’s the classic teacher advice to state things in the positive rather than the negative.  Raising a little one has really driven home the importance of that one to me, especially if you model the good behavior.  Because I realized it’s not just a more pleasant way to say the same thing, it’s actually much clearer.  I could tell my daughter a hundred times “don’t put too much food in your mouth” but how did she know what “too much” was?  She was just learning to feed herself. I switched to “use your tiger teeth to take a little bite like this: grrr” and the behavior changed almost immediately.

Another thing I try to do is to greet students before class has started, especially potentially troublesome students.  I learned a lot from a Life Space Crisis Intervention class about defusing conflict, and how often students come to class upset about something that happened elsewhere. Hopefully a pleasant exchange helps the kid reset, but at the very least you have a clearer idea of what’s going on with them.

Also getting into the habit of pointing out students who are complying rather than harping on students who aren’t.  So if I ask students to take out their sheet from last class, and some have and some haven’t, I choose someone who has and say “Darcy, can you hold up your sheet so everyone knows what they’re getting out?”  Bonus points if Darcy is usually quiet or is sitting next to one of the kids who’s likely to not be following directions.

And while we’re on the topic, I always make handouts I know I’m going to want to come back to on colored paper so they’re easier to find.  And I give the kids participation points for having them, so I usually have pretty positive compliance in this area already.

Encourage them to be more positive with each other

Kids can be surprisingly cruel to each other, even their supposed friends.  I make it a point to say “thank your partners, say goodbye to them, and return to your seats” in times of transition.  I also frequently ask them to share someone else’s good idea after partner work like appointment clocks.  That does double duty of getting more people involved in the discussion and increasing positive vibes.

I also find that addressing group dynamics shows them the importance (and difficulty) of collaboration without singling out anyone.  So “Is there a conflict in this group?” rather than “You’re too loud.”

You don’t have to let it go

One of the the things I hear teachers struggle with is the feeling that if they don’t criticize behavior, they’re condoning it.  But I’d like to suggest a third option: acknowledge the behavior and give an opportunity for improvement.  So when someone makes a rude or whiny comment I might pause, look pained, and say “Do you want to try that again?”  Usually that’s enough.

In a similar vein, I’ll ask students to prove me wrong.  So say we’re working in the library and 4 kids sit down at a table who I have (excellent) reason to believe won’t work well together. Rather than criticizing them or ignoring the situation, I’ll say “I’m a bit skeptical about this table, but I would love for you to prove me wrong by showing me that you can focus and be productive.” Hopefully, they’ll rise to the challenge.

Leading positive discussions

Leading discussions is another time when the dilemma of feeling like you’re either criticizing or accepting poor responses comes up a lot.  One thing I like to do is label responses as “Joey’s hypothesis” or “Tyler’s theory.”  It’s less painful to say “I don’t know if there’s much evidence for that hypothesis” rather than “that’s wrong.”  It’s an invitation for more conversation rather than a dismissal.  

Hopefully those ideas help the more serious among us to create a more positive classroom.  I strongly believe that kids benefit from having relationships with a variety of types of people, so I don’t think we all need to be super rah-rah cheerleaders.  And feeding kids a diet of nothing but praise isn’t healthy, either.  Instead, we can show them we care in a way that feels authentic to us, and keeps the ratio more balanced.

3 thoughts on “How to Create a More Positive Classroom

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