Guest Blog – Positive praise and reward reaps success!

This guest blog is written by Jane Wilson who works in the SEND team at The Sheffield College.

Context

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I have worked within the College environment for 10 years and enjoyed various roles around student support. My main interest and experience is working with students with Autism and I am an ABA trained therapist. I decided to participate in the Big Learning Project this year as we had a student enrolled on a Games Development course with complex needs including Autism, Pathological Demand Avoidance and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These needs were proving to be a huge barrier to this students learning and ability to access the curriculum in a positive way. He was not completing work and had negative relationships with many staff members. In light of this I was inspired to look at alternative ways and approaches of supporting him as his PDA was such that any demands or confrontations immediately provoked a negative barrier. I felt by focusing around positive praise and reward some of these issues may be lessened and therefore enable the student to engage with staff.  

Learning from elsewhere  

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During my research phase I spoke to several members of staff both within my team and in other areas to get different ideas, views, and perspectives on the project I was engaging in. I spoke at length with the lecturers and staff involved with the specific student I was basing my project around to discuss their views on different strategies and how they felt these may or may not work within the classroom. I monitored the students’ progress and behaviour patterns closely to get an insight into what strategies seemed to enable the student to work to the best of his potential.

Discussions held during the Big Learning Project sessions with colleagues enabled me to think and reflect more clearly about ways forward with this student and how positive praise and reward could be beneficial. I also researched a lot of information on the internet around praise and reward systems that are working in other establishments utilising some of these strategies alongside others of my own learnt from my work as an ABA therapist to see if these produced a positive response from the student.

One of the research materials I found most useful was The Management and Memory Tour 2012/13 Richard Bradley which talks very clearly about positive engagement and praise, focusing on good behaviour rather than constantly picking up on the negatives. The clear message I got from this piece of research was by saying phrases such as “ Stop shouting “, “Stop messing about”, “Don’t do that”, we are reinforcing bad behaviour. Instead, we should be telling a good behaviour story, “Excellent John you’re looking at the board and thinking” “I’m liking the way you are ready to engage with this task.” By offering these positive phrases we are paying attention to the good behaviour and not the bad so hopefully the disengaged  students will soon realise that to get attention they need to model good behaviour. Within this document it also said “Research shows praise is the most effective way to modify behaviour but it is extremely underused and we should try to praise far more than we criticise.” Another key phrase from this piece of research and the message I feel is most important is, “Talk to your students, congratulate them when they achieve something however small it may be. If they do something nice tell them you appreciate their kindness as this lets them know you really do care about them.” To summarise, this stage of information gathering from colleagues and the internet has lead me to believe that positive praise and reward is the key to success!  

The question to be answered  

I turned my research into a question by thinking about what is was I really wanted to achieve from taking part in the Big Learning Project and the impact it would have on the students I work with. This was the outcome: 

“If students are given more positive praise and rewards will it have an impact on their attitude to work and achievement? I will measure this by monitoring a specific student with complex needs who is identified at risk and see if he successfully completes the course using this system. I will also obtain feedback from student and lecturers.”   

The experiment journey 

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During this project there were a lot of ups and downs and highs and lows! Various strategies and interventions were used by SEND, the Tutor Mentor, LSAs and Lecturers some of which worked and others that didn’t. The key to the success of this project was for everyone to work collaboratively together ensuring regular communication and feedback at all times. 

At the start of the journey, the student I based the project around was presenting with extremely challenging behaviours; posing lecturers and LSAs working with him huge difficulties. He was often verbally rude to members of staff and would not engage with them when they tried to offer support. It did not help that this particular student had originally started on a level 3 course in which there was no in class support or support network for this extremely vulnerable student. After several weeks it was very apparent that the student was not going to cope without a vast amount of support, although academically he was very able. The decision therefore was made to transfer the student to a level 2 course where he would get the support structure he needed for his complex social and emotional behaviours. Due to the specific needs of this student, he saw this as a failure on his part and got very angry about the fact he had been moved meaning he became totally disengaged with the work and staff around him. As he had joined the level 2 course late he had work he needed to catch up on which he refused to do saying it was a waste of time. This is the point at which I felt it was vital to implement different approaches and strategies to give this student any chance of success. 

I started by speaking at length with the SEND staff from the student’s previous school, trying to establish what had worked for him whilst with them. They indicated that although he needed firm, fair boundaries he also needed the security of knowing someone was fighting his corner for him and thrived on positive praise rather than negative or confrontational situations. They also advised that what might work one day for this student wouldn’t necessarily work the next so variation and flexibility in approaches were key. Having collated all this information I then met with all staff working with the student to discuss and plan a way forward that was acceptable to all involved. I stressed that this was going to be a difficult and at times frustrating journey but one that was imperative to try for the success of this student. It was agreed that regular catch up meetings to re-asses and review strategies would be held. 

And so the journey began of a ‘Praise and Reward System’.

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The student’s attitude and behaviours meant a lot of negative comments were recorded but when they did do something positive or co-operated with staff, this went unmentioned so I suggested that each time this occurred, even if it was only a small step forward, this too was to be recorded. I also suggested that we implemented a reward system whereby the student was given a short, achievable piece of work to do and once they had done it was rewarded with free time to do drawing and spend time on their own personalised art work. Obviously there also had to be consequences for unacceptable behaviours so the student was also informed that if they continued to dis-engage in class and not complete tasks or were rude to staff, they would be removed to work in a separate room with myself. This was something the student really didn’t want to happen although it did have to be implemented on several occasions. The student was angry and at times verbally aggressive but did do the work and generally apologised afterwards. Whilst this was a difficult situation I knew it was all part and parcel of the student’s difficulties and never took anything personally. Regular meetings with all staff involved with the student were of paramount importance and we all discussed openly what strategies were working and which weren’t. At times people felt frustrated, angry even upset and there were times when the student was very close to being removed from the course. The BRAG rating for the student was at this time red.

One lecturer in particular really embraced the difficulties of this student and having had a few negative experiences in class spoke to me then took the student to one side and had a long, frank discussion with them. This seemed to be a turning point and slowly but surely the student began to trust this particular member of staff and would listen to and work for him. The student began to look forward to his lessons and said he worked for this person because he “got him”. He would complete some work, fetch me to show me, then have free time for the last half hour. Whilst the student still wasn’t being very co-operative in other lessons he was becoming less confrontational and dealing with demands put on him a little better. With a combination of some work in class and 1:1 sessions with myself and an LSA work slowly started to be completed and the BRAG changed to amber.

It was a tough year for all involved and particularly the student whose complex needs and difficulties presented such a huge barrier to his learning but with regular discussions, a praise and reward system and everyone working together as a team the student slowly embraced the support network and although there were many ups and downs right to the end the findings show it was totally worthwhile!

Findings 

I drew my findings from this project from various sources – learning logs, tutor comments, interviews with the student and lecturer, BRAG ratings and progression route. The table below best indicates the results. 

DATE  PROJECT  TUTOR COMMENT  PASS/REFER  BRAG 
Sept 16-Jan 17  1 ,2 ,3  Very behind, insufficient info. Lots to catch up on.  Refer  Red 
Feb/March 17  4,5  Submitted on time, just sufficient info.  Pass  Red 
April 17  6  Submitted on time, good work, a strong pass.  Pass/Merit  Amber 
May/June 17  FMP  Student managed to complete his FMP and catch up all other unit work to successfully pass the course.    Pass  Green 

As can be seen from the table above, this student went from BRAG rating red and being extremely close to being asked to leave the course to successful completion and BRAG rating green! It is interesting to note that the project submitted in April 17 was of a high standard and was when the student had started receiving more positive praise and the reward system was well in place. When the moderator came to oversee the work this student was one she looked at. Her comments were, that given the students complex needs she felt his work was of a high standard and that he had done remarkably well. She did also suggest that for such students in the future all their work did not need to be written it could actually be recorded and presented in different ways, which is definitely something to be observed in the future. Whilst it was not felt it was appropriate for this student to progress onto a level 3 course within college, I took them to visit an establishment in Sheffield called SHIFT where they secured themselves a place on an art and design course starting in September.

Also as part of the findings I interviewed the student and one of the lecturers with whom the student gradually engaged with and here are some quotes: 

Interview with Lecturer:  

Q – “How do you feel the year has gone with this student? “ 

A – “Challenging… but we got there in the end”

Q – “What strategies do you feel were most effective?” 

A – “Patience… Questioning my first response… Is this actually going to be helpful? Not being in the student’s face… being able to approach but not be over demanding.”  

Q – “Would you have done anything differently?” 

A – “Definitely… I felt the first half of the term I floundered… would have liked to have been more experienced and knowledgeable on the student’s specific needs… regular meetings and discussions definitely helped and the second half of the term the relationship improved and we worked well together.”

Q – “How do you feel a positive approach and reward system has benefited this student and potentially others in the future?” 

A – “By finding the good and not criticising the student responded better. Giving positive praise is a more effective way of teaching and gets results without confrontation. This particular student responded well to short blasts of work with a reward at the end.”

Interview with Student: 

 Q – “Who have you worked well for this year and why do you think that is?” 

A – “Ben… he understands stuff I’m going through… he didn’t talk down to me … he treated me with respect so in turn I showed him respect. He understood when I was tired …he was completely understanding… he never annoys me now… he did at first because I barely did any work… then we had a very serious talk and we understood each other and things started to work.”

 

Conclusions and Recommendations: 

I have thoroughly enjoyed taking part in The Big Learning Project and found it extremely useful choosing a topic relevant to the work I do. Focusing on one specific student has really contributed to that student’s success and given me ideas and inspiration for the future. The key factors I have learnt and will carry forward are: 

  • Lines of communication must be kept open at all times. 
  • Sound knowledge and preparation is key to success. 
  • Flexibility in approaches are of paramount importance. 

Many times, the student I have focused on was on the verge of failure but implementing different strategies, working collaboratively together and keeping lines of communication open resulted in success. It made me realise that it is easy to pick up on the negatives of such students but not so easy to praise and highlight the positives which is something I feel needs continual work in the future. I intend to circulate a leaflet bullet pointing some useful strategies and suggestions for this. 

Lack of knowledge and understanding around specific complex needs was a point highlighted by several people during this project so I would like to see more awareness training in this field.  

It was evident from the eventual success of this student that working collaboratively and in partnership with all staff and the student was a key fundamental point and I feel it is important to see this expanded on and continued in the future. This can be implemented by regular discussions and meetings and ensuring that lines of communication are kept open. 

In conclusion and returning to my question “If students are given more positive praise and rewards, will it have an impact on their attitude to work and achieve?” along with other contributory factors I think the success story of this specific student says it all…

 “Positive praise and reward really does reap success!”   

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