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Well-Behaved Students Are Oft Overlooked, But Deserve As Much Recognition As More-Demanding Peers

As teachers it's easy to ignore the pupils who give us the least grief, on the basis that they’ll just keep doing what they’re doing anyway.

  • Well-Behaved Students Are Oft Overlooked, But Deserve As Much Recognition As More-Demanding Peers

In every class that I’ve ever taught, there has been a group of children that I like to think of as the ‘always children’.

I’m sure you have them in your class as well. These are the students who always behave well and work hard; who always do their best and are willing to take a back seat when someone else needs your attention.

They always put their hands up when you ask a question and tidy away the resources in exactly the way you had asked. No one cajoles them into being good, it is simply part of who they are.

While most teachers would agree that a class of children who always behaved and did their best would be completely wonderful, think for a moment about the messages that we send through the way that we treat these pupils. We tend to give lots of attention to those children who are most challenging, especially when they finally do what we want. We often overlook pupils who give us the least grief, on the basis that they’ll just keep doing what they’re doing anyway.

My daughter came home from school recently with a puzzled look on her face. “Mummy?” she asked me, with the kind of tone that lets you know that an awkward question is coming. “Why is it that some children seem to get a lot more rewards than me, even though they are much more difficult for the teachers?”.

It took me a while to think this one through, and to come up with an answer that she might accept as logical. “Well,” I said eventually, “it’s because we can see that some children are motivated by the pure joy of learning, whereas other children need us to give them more of an incentive to understand how exciting learning can be.” She considered this answer for a few moments, and then she looked me in the eyes and pinned me with an undeniable truth: “But mummy, that’s not fair.”

We got into a long talk about how some children don’t have the advantages in their home lives that she does, and how teachers might have to treat some children with more flexibility, to make for a more equitable classroom. But her question kept nagging away at the back of my mind, reminding me of how easy it is to forget about the ‘always children’, and how our forgetting them might make these children feel.

One great way to ensure that you recognise your ‘always children’ is to keep a tally of how many rewards you give out and to whom. You might be surprised when you do this to find out how uneven our use of praise and attention can inadvertently be.

Try not to assume that children don’t want their efforts to be recognised just because they seem to find it easier than their peers to behave well or do good work. Consider the kind of things that you reward children for – include social and emotional successes, as well as academic ones. As a parent, I am much prouder of the certificate that my child got for helping her class mates than any she has got for academic attainment.

Another good tip is to make yourself a whole class set of rewards and then set yourself a target to hand out the full set, over the course of the year. This works well with praise postcards, where you (or the children) can fill out the names and addresses in September, and then you can work your way through the pile until all the postcards have gone.

Consider too what kind of rewards your ‘always children’ might appreciate – the chance to show their work to the head or to tidy up the equipment in the shed can be just as highly prized as a shower of house points or a mention in assembly.

Perhaps one of the best rewards that I have seen was a badge given out to one child every Friday, to acknowledge those who had gone above and beyond. On the badge was inscribed a simple yet powerful prompt: ‘Ask me what I’ve done’.

As the children walked around their school each Friday, with their badges proudly on display, all the adults were primed to ask them, “Ooh, what have you done?”. I like to imagine the confusion on my daughter’s face, on being asked this question. And her answer? “Well to be honest, I’m not really sure. I’ve just kept on being me.”

Sue Cowley is an educational author and helps to run an ‘outstanding’ preschool.

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