Use Reinforcing Language to Keep the Learning Going

Often, when I talk with teachers who have started trying out Responsive Classroom practices such as interactive modeling, they reflect, “Interactive modeling worked great for a while. My students did really well with whatever I modeled and they practiced. Then, things slowly started to slide.” Of course, I’m not in these teachers’ classrooms to know exactly what is going on, but I have a pretty good hunch—and an idea for how to change this trend.

Here’s my hunch, based on my own experience as a teacher: These teachers aren’t using enough reinforcing language to tell students what they’re doing well. I know how easy it is to forget to do this—when I was in the classroom, when the students lined up quickly and quietly, or responded to my signal in three seconds, or worked diligently and with focus for a whole work period, all too often I just thanked my lucky stars and figured I had time to fit even more learning in!

It’s important to take the time to tell children that we’ve noticed their successes. Over time, failing to respond to these successful moments actually costs us time because without reinforcement, many students will forget or devalue the expectations we so carefully modeled and practiced in September and October. Then we’ll start spending first a little, and then more and more time reminding, redirecting, and using logical consequences to get things back on track. And we begin feeling frustrated and wondering why the children didn’t retain what we taught them at the beginning of the year.

What if, instead, we took a few moments to celebrate small successes? Use reinforcing language to quickly point out what students have done well, showing them that you meant what you said during all those practice sessions and that you notice their efforts to meet those expectations: “Wow, you all returned the math manipulatives to the shelves neatly and in the right place, just like we practiced. Our classroom looks beautiful.” Or, for a class that struggles with touching and hitting: “We all kept our hands to ourselves on the way to music. You are developing self-control.”

One thing that often slid backwards for my classes was walking quietly in the halls. A quick reinforcement every time they managed to make it from one spot to another quietly could have made a big difference: “I noticed everyone walked from the library to our classroom silently. That helped us get here fast, and now we will have plenty of time to look at the books we checked out.”

(Want more examples? Here’s a video clip of  three teachers using reinforcing language in real classrooms, from the Teacher Language in a Responsive Classroom DVD.)

In my last few years in the classroom, I tried to be more conscious of using reinforcing language to keep the lessons of interactive modeling alive. I saw huge differences in students’ behavior. It took some time, but once I got into a groove with it, it felt natural, and we all felt much happier once I started spending more time on reinforcing positives.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Reinforcing Language