Accentuating the positive

Chris Hildrew

Chris Hildrew is Deputy Headteacher at Chew Valley School near Bristol with responsibility for curriculum. After leading a successful English faculty, Chris moved into senior leadership in the South West in 2010. His interests include curriculum design, assessment and data, mindsets, and whole-curriculum literacy approaches.

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How many times in a week do you tell children to “stop” doing something? How often do you find yourself in Joyce Grenfell mode: "George, don’t do that"? Or how often do you hear yourself giving a flat “no”? I am trying to make the answers to all those questions zero.

I'd learnt all about positive language during teacher training, in our one and only session on behaviour management. Rather than “please stop talking,” we were to use: “Everyone listening...thank you.” The reasoning is simple. In the first example, the word that ends the instruction is the exact opposite of the intended action. If I stood in front of my Year 11s and asked them nicely to stop talking, the word that lingered in the minds from my speech, bouncing from student to student, would be "talking...talking...talking...", and they would! In the positive example, the word is "listening," and the "thank you" expects cooperation instead of asking for it. A subtle difference, but an important one.

In the years since teacher training, I had slowly slipped into bad habits. I had stopped self-consciously planning my language in the classroom and become unintentionally negative, telling children what I didn't want and what I wouldn't like rather than what I did and would. So I made a personal pledge in my own teaching to refocus myself entirely on positive language. Not just in the classroom either – in conversations with staff and parents I pledged to make every effort to use positive language. "That option combination won’t work” would have to go; in its place: “have you considered Media Studies?” I tried to avoid “don’t let students out before the bell” and went for “wait until the bell before dismissing your group”. I tried to recalibrate my language to be solution focused.

I enlisted the help of the whole school community in helping me keep my pledge. In an assembly in January, I told every year group about my resolution and invited students and staff alike to try to catch me out. I asked them - respectfully! - if they heard me using negative language, to suggest a positive re-framing to help me. My Year 11 took to the task with gusto, and the dinner queue were particularly helpful as I attempted to modify some unruly behaviour, suggesting "line up sensibly...thank you" as I fell into the trap of a "no pushing" prohibition. Of course, by involving the students I was encouraging them to think positively too, and this reinforcement had the added benefit of creating a virtuous circle.

It's fair to say it's become something of an obsession, spreading to the family dinner table, bathtime and bedtime. My world is awash with positivity! And it isn't just a gimmick. When something is prohibited or forbidden, it sets up an oppositional relationship and breeds negativity. When, instead, I say what I do want to happen, offer the path that I would like the students to take, give a solution rather than just identify a problem, I hope to avoid that trap and create a culture that has positivity and collaboration in its very fabric. Truth be told, I think this should be a whole school cultural bottom line! As Gandhi said: “Your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” 

So if the pervading atmosphere of your classroom is not what you want it to be, take a leaf from the book of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke et al:

"You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
But don’t mess with mister in between"

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