Positive reinforcement leads to school-wide change

Lincoln Middle School has seen a 92-percent increase in random acts of kindness since instituting a positive-behavior program

As the largest middle school in the state of New Jersey, Lincoln Middle School has struggled at times with student discipline. Chronic tardiness and fights on campus have been a problem for this school, which serves 1,800 7th- and 8th-grade students.

Traditional approaches to student discipline haven’t worked to change the school’s culture. Not only has punishment been largely ineffective as a deterrent, but it also erodes the critical relationship between students and educators. When teachers are constantly meting out punishment, their relationship with students becomes confrontational instead of supportive—and this isn’t the type of environment in which students can learn most effectively.

Focus on the positive

School leaders have discovered a solution to this problem by focusing on the power of positive reinforcement. Using a program called Hero, Lincoln Middle School teachers and administrators have begun recognizing and rewarding students for their good behavior, such as coming to class on time and wearing the required uniform.

This modeling and rewarding of good behavior has created an atmosphere for change, and it has begun to shift the school’s culture. The entire administration, including Principal Fawzi Naji, supports the effort to build an embedded reward system into the school’s culture. As students who have been chronically late to class have seen their peers being rewarded for doing the right thing, some have begun to change their own behavior as well, without having to be told to do so.

“We’re seeing more and more acts of kindness,” says Assistant Principal Terrence Williams. “When students see other students being rewarded for doing the right thing, they catch onto it. It spreads like wildfire.”

The plan in action

Students can earn Hero points for being on time, wearing the required uniform, remaining on task, participating in class, and performing “random acts of kindness.” The points go toward incentives such as pizza parties and “dress down” (no uniform) days, which are one of the most popular incentives.

Positive recognition goes a long way

But it isn’t just the promise of a reward that is changing their behavior. “When students are rewarded for doing good, they are inspired to do more,” says Stephanie DiStasi, an eighth-grade counselor. “They feel that someone appreciates what they did.” And when students who struggle with discipline understand that good behavior will be recognized and rewarded, they begin to redirect their behavior as well. “I have seen kids be kinder to others,” says DiStasi.

Williams says the program has improved relationships between educators and students. Hearing only negative feedback causes students to disengage even further, but getting positive feedback—even for something as basic as showing up to class on time and prepared—allows them to feel successful.

This is only the second school year that Lincoln Middle School has been using Hero, and school leaders are trying to get more teachers to adopt the program in their classrooms. “Teachers who don’t use Hero at all find themselves sending more students to the office and struggling to keep kids on task, but among our top Hero users, I hardly ever see their students in my office because of something discipline related,” says Williams.

“By putting the positives first, we are reaping the benefits as a school,” he adds.

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