The Power of Positive Recognition

Jenna in First Grade with Mrs. Evans

Several years ago my 8 year old daughter Jenna was placed in Mrs. Evans’ first grade classroom. The rumors regarding this mysterious teacher ran from one extreme to the other… “She is the hardest teacher in the entire school!” “She is the best teacher at the school!” “She is mean!” “She is so loving!” Of course as a young mother, I was concerned about what Jenna might experience over the school year. However, as I look back on Jenna’s first grade year, my memories are filled with nothing but amazing! I have been raising kids for almost 30 years and in all of my years in both public and private schools Mrs. Evans was the best teacher we encountered.

Her classroom was quiet and peaceful. I volunteered in the classroom once a week and I never witnessed any behavior that wasn’t pristine. The children possessed a positive demeanor and remained focused on their schoolwork while showing kindness to their classmates. My daughter came home each day inspired and energetic about school! I had never seen anything like this! I spoke with mothers of former “Mrs. Evans” students and they agreed. In fact, one mom said to me: “The biggest problem with having Mrs. Evans as your child’s teacher in first grade is that all of the other teachers that follow will disappoint you!”

So what was up? What did Mrs. Evans do that other teachers didn’t do? Was she just lucky in getting the best students in the school, year after year, or did she mold the best students in the school? Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask Mrs. Evans the secret to her success. She quickly assured me that “luck” had nothing to do with it. In fact, she admitted to being slightly amused when a few of the newer teachers alluded to the same. Really? Mrs. Evans had been teaching for 30 years – no one is that lucky!! So what did she do that so many of her peers skipped?

Mrs. Evans never criticized. Ever!

She only acknowledged and rewarded the behavior she desired.

As I recalled back to my time in the classroom, I realized this was true! I had never seen her discipline a child or critique poor behavior. I had never seen her yell or humiliate a child for their lack of effort or discipline. I had never witnessed anything but positive reinforcement. How is this possible? How can you get 7 and 8 year old children to do the right thing without the fear of punishment? How can you get 30 to 50 year old adults to do the right thing without fear of punishment?

Mrs. Evans told me when “Johnny” was pinching another child in line she would simply find a student that was being kind to another child and remark on their kind behavior. Johnny quickly adapted his behavior to receive praise! If “Sara” handed in a sloppy assignment, Mrs. Evans quickly found a child that had done a nice job and congratulate that child for putting  in the extra effort. Surprise – Sara’s next assignment was stellar!  After noticing several girls out of their seats during quiet reading time, Mrs. Evans would look for the one student that was reading peacefully. Then she would sincerely (and loudly) thank that student for being diligent to their reading. (Of course, she would chuckle as  she watched from the corner of her eye as the girls quickly snuck back to their reading spots!)

Ken Blanchard calls this leadership technique “Catch People Doing it Right!” In a society that is very quick to criticize, the value of recognizing, complimenting and appreciating the behaviors you desire in your staff is remarkable. I realize your workplace isn’t the first grade. Of course, as a leader, there will be times when you need to have the tough conversations.  However, those times will be less necessary if your staff feels valued and appreciated. In, fact, a good rule of thumb is to save your criticism until you have had an opportunity to praise an individual a minimum of three times.

Everyone wants to be recognized for a job well done! Everyone wants to know their hard work was noticed! Your employees should never drive off the parking lot wondering if their contributions matter. Give more compliments, kudos and thanks! In return you will develop a classroom… I mean workplace… that is energized, effective and grateful! Try it for a week and see what happens. What have you got to lose but a few bad attitudes?!! Everyone, not just first graders, wants to feel valued and appreciated!