Your default teaching style of bouncy and positive has never failed you. Even with some very tricky behaviours your ability to maintain enthusiasm for learning has won through.

This term, things are different. While your relentless positivity is having the usual effect on the vast majority of the children, there is one who doesn’t like it at all. Instead of infecting him with bouncy goodness the public praise makes him shrink. Even private praise is batted away before it lands.

Most children swell with pride when you pick up on their ‘over and above’ behaviour. For Rees, the reaction is the polar opposite. Praise and positive recognition immediately provoke a defensive reaction. He doesn’t like it at all. He is angry, refuses to continue and on occasion crawls under the table eating his work on the way down. How can you teach Rees to accept praise and prove to him that he is worthy of it?

How do you respond?

A | Aversion therapy

Go for broke. Smash his resistance by burying Rees in praise until he is cured

Monday morning sees the first rumbles of the praise tidal wave. You place a ‘wanted’ poster in the staffroom with a mugshot of Rees and the heading ‘Attention: see this child, stop and praise on sight’. In class, you resist your normal routine with Rees and deliver very public praise while teaching. Your Recognition Board has his name all over it and other children begin to notice that something is afoot.

Rees is in a state before he arrives at your door. Today, he is not just angry with you but with every adult who has stopped and randomly commended him. He sees it as a personal attack. Behind his lips lie a fury of bad words. He’s keeping it in, but doing a bad job of hiding it. Instead of reacting to the warning signs, you decide to push through.

While you write his name on the Recognition Board you are forced to ignore more secondary behaviours than is wise. Before you even produce the ‘Learner of the Day’ sash from your bag, the inevitable happens, and Rees explodes with anger. Smaller children run for cover and panicked adults try to predict the pathway of this mini tornado by removing hazardous objects. In the melee, books, pencil cases and teaching assistants are sent flying. All the time Rees is screaming, “What have I done?

Your amateur aversion therapy looked better on paper.

  • Do children need to be able to accept praise, or should we respect their preference?
  • Are there times when you would ignore the warning signs of an anger explosion?
  • When does a secondary behaviour (one that is designed to distract attention from the initial behaviour) become too difficult to ignore?

B | Stop the praise

If he doesn’t want it, don’t give it to him

You decide to stop giving him praise, and to stop including him in any of the recognition systems. Rees’ staccato work rhythm continues around the same ‘Don’t understand it. Can’t do it. I’m stupid,’ loop. The fact that the adults have stopped trying to be encouraging seems to reaffirm to Rees that this perception of himself is the right one.

Rees’ confidence is not shifting. His opinion of his own ability and work are as negative as they have always been. You worry that his achievement is slipping and his position within the class is changing. Whereas before they would encourage him to join in with the team, the other children no longer see him as part of the class recognition process. Now, they ignore him. Not deliberately, but you have removed the possibility that he could positively impact on the rest of the group.

You seem to be back at square one, but squares two, three and beyond seem further away than before. You wonder if praise alone could ever really address Rees’ negative internal monologue. Perhaps a more direct, rational challenge to this might be a better starting point.

  • How do you interrupt the negative internal monologue of some children (and adults)?
  • How do you encourage children to work together to receive positive recognition?
  • What else could you try that was not rewards-focused intervention?

C | Triangulate

Use his teacher from the previous year to accelerate the trust between you.

You realise that a few weeks may not have been enough time for you to build trust with Rees. He certainly shows you respect, but you wonder if he is still making his mind up about you. It is, after all, difficult to accept praise from someone you don’t trust. It can feel empty, meaningless.

You decide to speak to his class teacher from last year, who tells you of similar rocky beginnings. The two of you hatch a plan to triangulate praise; to pass it through her, with the idea that this will build a trust between you and Rees.

This works well, although progress is slow. Mrs Windle pops in at seemingly random moments, and she and Rees can be seen touring the playground together at breaktime after a particularly good morning of work. It takes Rees time to open up to the possibility that his new teacher might be as trustworthy as his last, but Mrs Windle’s involvement is crucial.

Your focus on Rees has also allowed you to examine his working pattern more closely. You are now much more aware of his negative behaviours and occasional confidence crashes. It is always worth remembering that some children may have had bad experiences with trusting adults too much, so they are wisely slow to open up. But they need to trust before they can learn.

  • Are there ways to accelerate trust with those who open up slowly?
  • How could you manage transitions between teachers more smoothly for some children?
  • Do you praise children for merely meeting minimum standards, or only for going ‘over and above’?

What’s your style?

A | Praise monster

Although it might seem tempting to adopt a ‘kill or cure’ attitude, you seem to be meeting your needs, not the needs of the child. Changing a child’s perception of her ability needs a slower, calmer and more refined approach.

B | Praise pillock

You cannot take a tit-for-tat approach with young children. You may not know how to change the status quo, but giving up altogether, taking your lead from a nine-year-old and separating him from the rest is never going to improve the situation.

C | Praise wizard

We all need to trust before we can genuinely accept praise. Children are no different. Your sensitivity to this and to the needs of the individual will take you further and faster than any magic-dust solution

Paul Dix is lead trainer at Pivotal Education and regular co-presenter of the Pivotal Podcast