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The Power of Positive Reinforcement

I’m an AHT working in a challenging 11-16 comprehensive school, with challenging students who by enlarge come from challenging backgrounds.
Part of my job is to challenge their behaviour, to help them to see their role within a problem and lead them onto a path of reconciliation. The relationships requiring reconciliation are mostly student-student or student-teacher.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the problems between student and teacher and some ways in which to act before a reaction.
Minimising student-teacher problems
Student teacher relationships can breakdown for a myriad of reasons and often these reasons have nothing to do with the here and now. Often, a problem has manifested before the student has entered the class. Triggers will then occur that tip the student from rational to irrational e.g. lateness to class followed by teacher challenge can lead to an irrational response from the student. I must be clear here, would I challenge lateness – absolutely. It’s the method by which behaviours are challenged and the relationships built beforehand that can minimise a potentially explosive situation.
Act or React – The Power of Relationships

Act not react

For me, education isn’t just the chalk-face or more e-face nowadays! It’s the day to day, moment by moment interaction with people within the school community.

Be Human

Face to face contact outside of the classroom is one of the most important wins a teacher can have. Being at school for the morning meet and greet. Get outside as the students group together. Get involved. Say hello. Ask questions about their weekend, a forthcoming event or about their day ahead. At first, the students will be on their back foot. With consistency of application, you’ll become the teacher who cares, who’s interested in their lives. You’ll build relationships. Conversation will become ‘normal.’
In your PPA time get out onto the corridors. Smile at colleagues and students you meet. Say hello. Question why students are out of class positively…’Hi, where should you be now?’ ‘Nice to see you….but where should you be?’
Regardless of how you feel, meet students and fellow professionals with a smile. Be positive. Challenging students will often be surrounded with challenging circumstance. Added to the swathes of hormones, it makes for a complex and reactive human being. Smiling and being human will break down defences and build relationships.


Why invest?

By investing in relationships you’ll make it difficult for students to say NO. Asking them to take their ear phones out; phone away; coat off; scarf off; explain why they’re late; stop, because you need to chat; stop running, etc etc etc will become a given. The students, including the challenging  students will do as you ask when you ask it.
Telling someone to ‘expletive off’ is made incredibly difficult when you have a relationship with that person. They know you care, they respect that you care, they follow your instruction, they respect your instruction. Why? Because you respect them.
So now, be consistent 
Once you have developed a climate of respect. It’s essential that you do not waver. Always be positive, always show your students respect, always challenge appropriately. In turn, students will mostly respond positively. Always be consistent. Consistently positive.


The problem with managing sanction systems.
They’re always abused.
I’ve met so many teachers that employ different techniques for discipline. Often discipline is what you are met with at the door: – No mobile phones, coats off, don’t shout out. Not a smile and a welcome.
Some students are met with sanctions e.g. for those that use the consequence system, I’ve seen the ‘C’ system sanctions are up on a dedicated wall already, before the class has begun. As if, the expectation by the teacher is that there will be consequences. There will be names on the board, come what may.
Flip it to Positive Reinforcement
Instead of sanctions, meet students with praise. Have a positivity wall or tick chart. Meet and greet with a happy face and a positive comment. Train the students i.e. first to sit down with their stationary out and their books out gets a tick on the board.
I’ve literally seen the most challenging students from 11-16 sit straight backed with their arms folded because they wanted a tick on the board. They want and need positive reinforcement.
I’ve done this in assembly of 14-15 yr olds. The best side (for my rule that day it was the quickest side) to put their hands on their head. No prize offered, they just wanted to impress, to be the best.
An example
One of the toughest students came to me with his card. He was elated. Not only had he received great scores but he had received STICKERS of praise too. He was grinning from ear to ear. He wouldn’t stop with his delight; that he was bestowed with such a hollowed reward. This was also in the company of member of staff and his after school football session. Attending were droves of our more challenging children. He wasn’t embarrassed with his reward.
It took me by surprise but it reminded me that he was indeed, a child.
I’m not suggesting that we languish our children with stickers. But rather, we reward more, especially those that do it right constantly with: –
  • Stickers (when absolutely deserved)
  • Phone calls of praise
  • Public recognition within the classroom
  • Postcards of praise
  • Department certificate of recognition
  • Headteacher commendation
It’s a timely reminder to me that positive reinforcement and relationships are a key driver in our system of education.

Changing School Culture

Nothing is more important than the staff you’re working with.

When I look at the team sheet everyday, I look for pivotal staff who in their absence is going to cause the school an issue.

I know this fact, EVERYONE of them is important, each vital for the school stability.

In an age of changing standards, changing tests, changing curriculum, changing standards, changing progress  (whatever that means), stability is key.

In a recent staff meeting I asked, ‘who can describe a success that day, that week and discuss.’ The conversation was rampant.

I also said of staff thinking of a success that day, they might find it difficult!

I explained the reason for difficulty after, lengthy, thought provoking conversation…..the reason is because…

At the end of a day that may have included teaching 5 periods and two duties and dealing with parents and dealing with children and dealing with issues that arise, staff maybe tired….

Just maybe, no, absolutely.

I asked a second question…’which of you came into the profession to do the very best job you can?’ It was unanimous.

Of course it was.

I believe that all the staff I work with came into the profession to change the lives of young people; to help shape their future, to allow young people to have decisions about their future.

There are stumbling blocks in the way of great schools, of great education.

I can say this…the teachers I work with are not the definitive reason for pupil success.

CULTURE plays an immense part. The culture I work in is that of worklessness.

Staff should know this….to change culture takes time (lots of it) and persistence  (lots of it). But most importantly, I hope staff know that their part in this transformation is ABSOLUTELY vital and that if I do my job right, my staff know that this is true.




Cultural Shift and an Etonian

In every school there is a culture. A culture develops differently depending on the situation, the time, the space and the experiences of the previous culture. However, it’s highly dependent on the leader and those that ‘follow the leader.’

Some cultures are difficult to break and sometimes we don’t want to break them, it’s what we’re used to. Cultural change can be a struggle for some or an easy transition for others.

Eton began in 1440; they’ve had some time to develop their culture, their philosophy, their way.

Henry VI (pictured below) opened Eton College. I wonder if he considered at the time that his vision for a highly performing school would last for hundreds of years.


Eton has tradition. As you enter the detention house (to the left of Henry) you are meant to walk anti-clockwise around him and not cut across.

The very first game of fives, also known as Eton fives was played at Eton at this spot (pictured below) in 1887.


Some parts of Eton are more modern (post 1945) as parts of the College were bombed during WWII. There is a timely reminder of the Etonians of the past who fought and died in WWI and WWII (pictured next page).


All the names of Etonians lost, are commemorated along the wall of the main courtyard.

It was tradition that the names of those that moved on from Eton to inscribe their names into stone or wood (see below).


The practice of inscription has long since halted but other traditions and values remain; there are no bags at Eton (boys without bags!). Books are left decorating the entrance to buildings where boys get up early and plan their book drops in order to make their trips efficient (they hope it doesn’t rain).

Eton is steeped in history, some of which hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. The current Head Master of Eton, Tony Little said that a part of his role is to remind everyone constantly of the vision and values of Eton.

As I reflect on what I witnessed, I reflect upon schools in general. The visions and values of an institution are the bonds that hold it together. It’s through the visions and values of the Principal that the culture of school community develop.

Progress for All

For years I have thought about how you can challenge all learners; to make progress with each and everyone that enters your classroom. When you’re teaching 5 periods back to back; meeting up to 150 learners, this, truly is a challenge.

The Past

11 or so years ago, it was driving me to distraction. I came up with the solution that you can’t.

I began to focus on 5 students/lesson. This allowed me to really get to know the students and what their needs were. Every lesson, I would rotate the students of primary focus. Teaching a subject like Science and seeing students five times a week has advantages; I could virtually focus on each student at GCSE/week.

However, this sat uncomfortably as children in KS3 would be focused on once/fortnight. This solution is certainly not a solution for those that teach a subject where they see the students once/week……….

‘I still haven’t found what I was looking for.’


More like the present 

For me, the introduction of ‘The National Strategies’ (1997-2011) provided the answers towards what I was seeking; rapid improvement for all. Indeed, many of the aims of the strategy inform govt policy today: –

The aims of the Assessment for Learning Strategy are that:

‘ every child knows how they are doing, and understands what they need to do to improve and how to get there. They get the support they need to be motivated, independent learners on an ambitious trajectory of improvement.’

It was revolutionary to me at the time…..a


Using AfL strategies to help learners improve their learning.

There are a plethora of strategies to incorporate in your teaching to unlock the potential of the students that enter your classroom. Virtually all are reliant on the teacher as the facilitator and quite rightly so. However, I have still struggled with how all students including: SEND; G&T; EAL; FSM; PP etc can access the lesson quickly and make progress. However, I’ve developed a strategy that has enabled me to do just that: –

Is all to do with language – many children find it difficult to access the lesson because they do not understand the words that you are using in the lesson. Placing the key words under your lesson objective and outcomes (a common practice) is not enough. Children have to engage with the language. So, here is a 5 minute strategy to help all your learners engage with the language of the lesson: –

6 Literacy boxes


I always get the students to begin with accessing the key words i.e circle the key words that you do not understand – there’s a hundred and more ways of engaging students with this task – from matching key words up to definitions (lower ability) to writing their own definition and checking the glossary (higher ability)….and many more creative ways.

The content as you navigate through the boxes is entirely up to you, but I like to challenge learners by increasing complexity. The language used and complexity will depend on the ability of the class (the screen shot above is for a class ranging from target level 3-6 with extension tasks built in).

The flexibility of this is that you could model ideas as a class; one box could be to demonstrate your understanding from a model/play/experiment etc. The ideas are endless.

With this sheet I tend to have a leveled/graded descriptors sheet for each pupil: –


As students gather evidence, they self and peer assess their work. By setting challenging targets for each student and getting the ‘climate of learning’ correct, you can review their work during your feedback and develop an understanding of the progression of each student.

More importantly, all learners know where they are and how they can progress.

A Positive Ofsted Experience

I don’t think that I am alone on this, but when the call from Ofsted arrives between midday and twenty minutes after, a million thoughts descend.


This week was the return of those thoughts and this is just a short blog about a very positive experience.


Leading Teaching and Learning in a school is the most important of roles; it’s the reason after all that we went into the profession in the first place. To engage learners, challenge them to think; to think for themselves, explore opportunities to help them fulfil their potential and yes, help them ascend through levels of progress.


If the achievement in your school is poor (like my school), there’s a reason. It’s the inspectors role to ascertain why the achievement is poor and you don’t usually have to look much further than the Quality of Teaching, it’s the reason this follows ‘Achievement’ in the inspectors good guide of course. 


It was my role to accompany the HMI and conduct lesson observations for the purposes of standardisation. Three observations were completed during day 1. It was all very formal. Initially, I found myself peering at the HMI’s S5, hoping that her assessment matched mine. I then began to relax and conduct the observation myself. 


At the end of day 1, the inspector wanted the debrief. I thought that this would develop into an interrogation. It didn’t. The HMI was more concerned with the strengths and areas for development in each lesson, much more than the grade I had given it (although, this was important). There was a professional discussion about the typicality of the lessons observed and the pedagogical pattern that was observed across all three lessons.


The HMI wanted to observe me give feedback to my colleagues. This was very unusual for me in that feedback had to be given in 5-7 minutes. I usually take longer, but, maybe this is an area for development. After I had given feedback, the HMI gave me feedback on my feedback. It was superb professional development……During the feedback process, I always open with, ‘Tell me what you felt were your areas of strength and development.’ If the lesson observed was a poor lesson, opening with the line ‘tell me how you can improve that lesson,’ lets your colleague know where you stand before giving comment. 


Later that afternoon, the same HMI wanted to interview me on the Quality of Teaching and strategic development. I was armed, I had things in place……a baseline assessment of the quality of teaching…….a strategy for short term and long term improvement (with targets)…….a rigorous QA document to enable the implementation of the school plan.


I handed the documentation to the HMI and went about discussing our improvement plan. The conversation developed into more of a coaching session than an interrogation of things that were not right; allowing me the opportunity to develop my thoughts. 


The HMI took my documentation away with the promise that if there was anything missing, she would request another meeting the next day. She did. However, this was a meeting of feedback. The documents were handed back to me annotated, with notes and suggestions of improvement. I was also given advice on how to improve further. As well as an EBI, I was also given the WWW.


This was my first experience with a HMI being interviewed on the Quality of Teaching. I found the entire process nonjudgmental which is ironic because it clearly is. Or is it the expertise of the HMI, being able to judge without me being made to feel judged?