Positivity

A typical meeting for an underacheiving student looks like this: parents, teachers, student and advisor all come together. They take turns explaining what is wrong with the student. Doesn’t study enough, not paying attention, socializes too much, obsessed with video games, etc.

Here is what you almost never hear at that meeting: what the student is great at, what his or her Spark of Genius is. If the kid is a whiz at computers or drama or sports, the teacher for that subject probably won’t even be at the meeting.

Granted, if the kid isn’t doing his part, he won’t be successful, but it is a very rare child who does not want to succeed in school. He or she may have given up hope that he can, may hide the fact that he cares, but deep down he wants to succeed.

And we, as educators, parents and mentors, often do the opposite of what the child needs.

We assume that the child isn’t pulling his weight, isn’t putting in the homework and study time needed. If we find out that in fact Jimmy is locked in his room four hours a night with 16 tons of textbooks, we then assume that he is goofing off in there, not making a real effort. We say things like, “If only he would study more”, “He needs to study with the T.V. off”, and my personal favorite, “When Jimmy tries, he does great,” which implies that since his grades aren’t great then he just isn’t trying.

Classical conditioning, scientifically validated for over fifty years, dictates that we should do the opposite: reinforce the behaviors you want, and ignore the behaviors you don’t want.

Try… Instead of…
Awesome, you’re studying! Shut off that computer!
Your Math grade went from a D to a C.
Let’s celebrate!
You failed English!
[Insert Punishment Here].

A common reaction to this is that it isn’t realistic, and by itself that is true. The struggling student needs an effective, structured plan. The plan should leverage the student’s Sparks of Genius to overcome weaknesses.

Is the student in love with his computer? Then taking away the computer is cutting his feet out from under him. Is she a Drama Queen (the good kind)? Don’t ban her from the school play, use a Dramatic Format to learn other subjects.

How do you handle effort and improvement? Respond with high praise, even for the smallest successes and efforts in the beginning. If your child makes an effort but fails, and the effort goes unnoticed, the child thinks, “Why bother?” Praise is free! Affection is free! Don’t scrimp on the free stuff.

How do you handle misbehavior? By dispassionately enforcing the guidelines built into your PLAN. No yelling, no screaming, no fighting; those are reinforcers that encourage the misbehavior.

So, if the child wants to be in the school play, but math is in the D-F region, you forge an agreement, like:

You will spend 30 minutes each night before a school day studying math at the kitchen table. The TV and radio will be off (if that is an issue). There will be no phone calls, internet, computer, chatting or distractions. All homework must be turned in on time. You must maintain B’s. If you score lower than a B on a quiz or test, the study time goes up to 1 hour, with a ten minute break, and you must stay after school three times for tutoring. You can miss two study sessions per month. If you miss more than that, you will be removed from the play without exception.

The agreement is put in writing and signed and posted on the fridge, the bedroom door, the bathroom mirror and the front door. Every time the child fulfills their end of the bargain, give heaps of praise and encouragement. That is what keeps them on track.

When they mess up, and they will, don’t get upset, or emotional or take it personally. Dispassionately enforce the agreement. Don’t let them get your goat.

Even the most stubborn, obstinate, disobedient child does not try to walk through walls. He understands that the wall is there and he has to deal with it. He tries to walk all over you because he has been able to do so in the past. When it comes to negative behavior, be as consistent as the wall, especially when you feel like beating your head against it.

Sincerely,
Allen Dobkin

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