Gary is a terrific young man. Heâ€™s kind, good-natured, polite, and knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics. Gary arrived in third grade after a difficult early childhood in which he attended many different schools, experienced a traumatic injury, and was forced to deal with many serious family issues. I was amazed that he could be so wide-eyed and charming after everything he had been through.
On a typical school day he would have trouble maintaining his attention during instructional lessons and would produce little to no work once he began his independent practice, even though he had proven time and time again that he was a capable student. I am convinced that he never meant to cause any problems, and I believe he always had the best of intentions when he entered class each day. Still, he would frequently sit idly at his desk for extended periods of time and have little to show for it.
In these types of situations, teaching strategies based on extrinsic motivation typically dictate that we try to coerce students like Gary into increasing their output by either rewarding or punishing him. If you have been reading the previous posts in this blog series, you know that I strongly oppose any form of extrinsic incentives due to the fact they are both ineffective in promoting long-term habits and destructive to our studentsâ€™ intrinsic motivation. So, in my mind, any type of behavior contract or other management tool that relied on extrinsic incentives to bring about a change in his behavior simply wasnâ€™t an option.
Punishments werenâ€™t an option, either. Keeping him in the classroom during part of his free time until he finished his work was something I tried (and continued to do whenever it made sense to do it), but it didnâ€™t make a significant difference in Garyâ€™s work output. Plus, that option is always unattractive to teachers because it means that we are also giving up some of our free time. When I stepped back from the immediate situation and thought about Gary and his background, I understood that he had suffered serious hardship in his life, and any school-based punishment simply wasnâ€™t going to cause him to change his behavior. He had endured situations that no child should ever have to experience, and the thought of missing some free time wasnâ€™t going to have the deterrent effect with him that the threat of punishment is assumed to have.
After spending a great deal of time and effort attempting various behavior improvement strategies, I needed a new approach because conventional management approaches werenâ€™t helping the situation.
So, one day I was sitting in the class with Gary at lunch, and I came up with an idea. Never would this idea be found in an education textbook, but I trusted my judgment and felt it was worth a try.
I called him over to where I was sitting and asked him if there was something that he loved, something that he was passionate about. He responded that he loved birds. He even told me that his mom said she might get him a bird one day, and that thought made him happy.
I asked him if he would be a willing to try an idea. He agreed. I curled my fingers into the shape of a bird. It didnâ€™t really look like a bird at all, but I referred to my curved hand as a bird, and Gary was happy to play along. After all, kids who experience behavioral or academic difficulties often become frustrated, as well, and they are usually more than willing to try a fresh approach.
I told Gary that my â€œbird handâ€ would be our new private communication signal. If he was working well at his desk, and I showed him the bird from my spot in the front of the room, that meant he should keep up the good work and show me the bird in return to acknowledge my positive message.
If he wasnâ€™t working well at his desk when I flipped him the bird, it was my way of inspiring him and encouraging him to think of something positive in his life so that he would begin to become more productive.
He liked that I would show him the bird in both of these situations because if he was doing well, he would get a confidence boost and a feeling of pride and recognition, and if he wasnâ€™t, then he was getting the redirection he needed. Many times itâ€™s so easy to focus on the negative, and I really wanted to emphasize the positive, as well.
When I went home later that day, I had no idea what to expect once I returned to school the next day. Then I realized that whether or not our new bird signal paid dividends, at least no harm would result. Our signal was not extrinsic, had no side effects, and had no down side. There was no fear of punishment and no promise of an extrinsic reward that bore no connection to the task at hand. It was meant as a purely inspirational gesture. Nothing but positivity.
The darndest thing is, it actually helped. Did it solve all his problems and turn Gary into a consistently productive independent worker? Of course not. But did it make a noticeable difference? Absolutely. He slowly became more productive, and, more than that, it strengthened our relationship (unlike extrinsic motivators, which rupture relationships) and kept everything positive.
Since that day, I have been thinking in a whole new way about how to manage children who have difficulty meeting the academic or behavioral expectations of my classroom. Because each child is different and unique, I know that I must personalize my approach to each student. This is much more difficult than simply administering rewards or punishments, but the time and effort required are worth it. Of course, simple gestures like the bird do not constitute a comprehensive plan that will solve all problems. These gestures are, however, part of an overall approach that seeks to inspire students by appealing to the best in them.
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