The way teachers respond to positive behavior also has an impact. We can encourage children’s efforts by providing specific acknowledgement rather than empty praise (which can either become meaningless or addictive for a child).
“The only lifelong, reliable motivations are those that come from within, and one of the strongest of those is the joy and pride that grow from knowing that you’ve just done something as well as you can do it.” -Lloyd Dobens and Clare Crawford-Mason
When a child has done something impressive, instead of saying, “Good job,” try one of the following:
1. Report what you see (narrating).
A short, objective statement such as, “You put your dishes in the tub,” or “You figured out a solution to the problem,” acknowledges children’s efforts and allows them to judge for themselves the merits of their achievement. Elaborate on the details of their actions to provide more specific feedback. For example, “It looks like you used blue and green to make an ocean.”
2. Connect it with a desired character trait, value, or expectation (PDA: Positive, Descriptive Acknowledgment).
When a child does something that is an example of a character trait, value or expectation, add the expectations language to the comment. For example, if a child has put away toys on the floor say, “You cleaned up the blocks. You are keeping the area safe.” Or if they helped a friend you might say, “You gave Yoon Seo the fire truck. That’s being friendly.” Expectations language provides definitions for the character words, builds self-efficacy (belief that you have the ability to succeed at a task), and helps the child to internalize the behaviors.
3. Emphasize the impact on others.
If a child does something caring or something that benefits the community, acknowledge the positive impact. For example, if a child has put away toys on the floor say, “You cleaned up the blocks. Now someone else can have a turn.” Or if they helped a friend you might say, “You gave Yoon Seo the fire truck. He looks really happy to have it.” Such language builds a sense of agency (ability to intentionally make things happen through your actions) by drawing the child’s attention to the impact his/her actions have on another child.
4. Ask open-ended questions.
Being curious encourages the child to reflect. “What do you like best about your tower?” or “How did you know to put the puzzle piece there?” Asking open-ended questions builds language and engages the children in abstract thinking.
5. Say nothing.
When children are playing, we often feel the need to continually comment on their actions. This can be disruptive and can create an extrinsic motivation to explore. Let children take joy in their own learning and allow them to experience the pride of their own accomplishments.
Planning for Guiding Behavior
The plans for guiding behavior, although typically not seen on a daily or weekly plan posted for all to see, will likely be found in the program manual. In a program manual, teachers and administrators explain strategies for guiding children’s behavior to support learning how to get along respectfully and cooperatively with others. Short written handouts on common issues like sharing, biting, hitting, or name-calling are also useful ways to make visible to families how teachers support young children in getting along respectfully and cooperatively with others. (The CA CSEFEL Teaching Pyramid Web site at https://cainclusion.org/teachingpyramid/ is a resource that provides downloadable handouts on such topics in English, Chinese, and Spanish.) It is important that families see that such planning is part of the broad definition of curriculum. Families are integral to this planning, as they have their own perspectives on guiding learning and behavior. Collaborating with families opens up possibilities to help children learn expectations both at home and at school, because children are learning ways of being with others in both settings.
There will be times when social–emotional development and negotiating relationships between children take center stage in the written plan. For example, in a toddler classroom, several children might be learning the importance of not biting others when they are upset. This behavior might become a focus for teacher reflection and curriculum planning for the group at large for several weeks. Teachers might decide to read stories to the children about things to do when angry. Or schedules may be adjusted to allow a teacher to shadow a child who tends to bite when upset. Teachers might also document over the course of several days to see if biting tends to occur at particular times.
Another example comes from a classroom of three-year-olds who are all new to the program. The term “cleanup time” may not make sense to the children, so the teachers plan opportunities when children can experience and discuss what this term means. It becomes the topic of discussion during a large-group gathering. It also takes on a special look during the cleanup that happens before lunch, as a teacher adds a new routine in which each child gets to pull from a basket a sign that says, “I cleaned” and carries it into the meal area. The idea of cleanup also gets written into a story, dictated by several children who are dismayed that not everyone was helping with cleanup. The teachers make time during large-group gathering to read the story. Prompted by the teacher’s suggestions, several children illustrate the story, which becomes part of a homemade book that finds a home in the book/story area.