When I was a teacher of younger students I always had a desk filled with stickers of all kinds, even those that the little ones might scratch to reveal a delightful scent. I was always amazed by the power of those little images to motivate my pupils. When I awarded good behavior, effort or achievement with the portrayal of a little puppy or kitten or superhero, it seemed as though everyone worked just a bit harder. If I added a personal comment of encouragement or praise to the mix, the results were wondrous. The Skinnerian power of stickers always amazed me.
I sometimes wish that there were some similar little sticker routine that would help to make adults feel better about themselves. Of course, when a person has bills to pay, problems to solve and concerns about serious issues, a little sticker of a smiling Santa Claus does little to soothe anxiety. Still, I wonder how many people have evidence of genuine compliments about their efforts on a regular basis. Positive reinforcement is something that we all crave, and sometimes lack.
I once worked for a very well-meaning administrator who worked hard to guide all of the teachers to continually improve their craft. She spent a great deal of time observing us at work in the classroom and then holding conferences to share what she had seen. The trouble was that her entire focus was on all of the things that we had done wrong. Week after week she suggested ways not to do certain things. It became incredibly discouraging, because no matter how hard we tried, we only heard that we were not quite up to the job.
One week, when she asked me to respond to her criticisms, I asked her if she ever saw anything good about my performance. She was stunned by my question, and insisted that most of my teaching was excellent. She explained that her goal was to find the little things that I might improve, so that I would become a master teacher. She was surprised that instead I had taken her negative litany as an indication that I was never going to be good enough.
I suggested that she tweak her tactic by beginning with a recitation of the positive things she had seen and then asking if we had any concerns about our teaching that we wanted to improve. I believed that such a discussion would almost always lead to a productive way of building on strengths while also being aware of weaknesses. It would be a growth experience rather than a feeling of constant failure. That little change would be like a happy sticker of encouragement at the top of our paper.
She did change, and with that little difference came improvement in morale and productivity. People, whether young children or adults, really do respond to positive reinforcement. We all want that little pat on the back, and when we get it, we tend to work harder to keep those compliments coming. Since most of us are already our own worst critics, it stands to reason that negativity comes across as punishment. We feel defeated if someone only seems to notice what we have not done, rather than showing appreciation for what we have achieved.
I worked for many years as a kind of facilitator for my fellow teachers. I had various titles including Dean of Faculty, but I viewed my duties as being the person who would bring out the best qualities of each individual. I did my best to find the unique skills that gave each teacher the potential to become a rockstar. Sometimes a person was so naturally gifted and talented that my work was easy, in other instances the educator was struggling to find a sweet spot in the classroom. Unless the teacher had given up entirely, I found that the first step to success was in finding the things he/she did best, and then building on those skills.
Essentially we all want to be appreciated. We don’t want a trophy just for showing up or even for just participating, but it’s nice when someone notices how we are trying. The vast majority of people will work hard if their efforts are understood and appreciated. None of us master skills at the same time and in the same manner. It can be discouraging to be that person who only receives criticism. The natural inclination in such a situation is to eventually give up on the challenge and on ourselves. It’s one of the reasons why so many grown adults speak of hating mathematics. They struggled at some point, and nobody bothered to help pull them out of the abyss of failure. It became easier to believe that they were incapable of understanding math.
Keep a pile of virtual stickers ready for the people around you. Use them liberally. You won’t have to make up compliments because everyone does something wonderful on a regular basis. Put a sticker on their efforts, accomplishments, goodness. Life is difficult and sometimes cruel. Be the positive reinforcement that we all desire. You’ll be surprised at the smiles that will result, and the efforts to become even better that follow.