The Magic of Accentuating the Positive

 Two Stories – although both happened between a teacher and student, the process applies just as strongly between a parent and child.

Kent was a sophomore in my English class and after the first few weeks of school, I was convinced that he was an obnoxious, sneaky, callous, arrogant boy. He sported that nasty little grin that said I’m going to make your life miserable and you’ll never catch me doing it. He organized the other boys in the class to make noises surreptitiously, and I could never identify the actual villain. In the midst of my lectures or directions, laughter and tittering would erupt unsolicited and make the rounds in the classroom.

Many days I would return to my classroom after lunch to find the blossoms gone from all my geraniums. This boy regularly “accidentaly” knocked papers and pens off my desk. And to top it all off, he was never late for class, turned in every assignment, and earned A’s on all tests and papers. I couldn’t stand Kent, yet knew I had to work with him for the whole year, so I needed to come up with a plan.

I decided to find something positive to compliment him on every day. In the beginning it was a real stretch. In my present state of frustration, all I could see was that he was a neat dresser. I started with quick little comments on his clothes. As I walked by his desk I’d privately say something like, “Cool shirt.” And I’d smile. Then I started commenting on his work., “I found what you wrote about the main character in the play very perceptive.” Or “I really liked the way you….” I worked very hard to find something specific, real, and positive to say each day.

About 3 weeks into this process, I caught him watering my geraniums. I noticed the uncalled for classroom noises stopped. He started waiting after class just to say something to me, “Did you see that game last night?” or How’d you like…?” WOW, I couldn’t believe the change in Kent. (Or was the change in me?)

By the end of the year, he was my favorite student.

A middle school special education teacher tells this story.  

About a month into the new school year, Mrs. Kendal, the 7th grade Language Arts teacher, came to see me on a Friday afternoon. She was completely distraught, telling me how she was going crazy trying to teach effective lessons and deal with Steve, who in her words was the “worst student I’ve ever had.” She wanted me to have a talk with him – see if I could straighten him out.

I told her I’d be glad to have a talk with Steve, and to help me I needed two lists from her; one with the bad things he did and another with the good things he did. Monday morning, she gave me a long list of “bads” and 2 items of “goods.”   I thanked her, and asked her to continue looking for anything she could think of to add to the “good” list. As she was leaving, she reminded me “Be sure to emphasize with Steve that if he doesn’t stop fooling around and not doing his work, he’s going to fail Language Arts.”

That afternoon I met with Steve and asked him how things were going. He said he thought things were going “okay enough.” I happened to mention that Mrs. Kendal had dropped by my room and said some good things about him. “No Way!” he immediately responded. I told him the two good things she had listed. He didn’t say anything more about it, and we moved on to other topics – mostly sports – and ended our visit speculating about the upcoming hockey season. I hadn’t mentioned any of the “bad” things Mrs. Kendal had listed, nor did I warn him about failing Language Arts.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Kendal brought me an updated list of “good” things about Steve. I told her Steve and I had met and had a positive exchange. I encouraged her to continue the list over the next week. I continued to meet with Steve and frequently would ”just happen” to mention a couple of the added good items Mrs. Kendal’s gave me.

About three weeks later, Mrs. Kendal came by on her way home, “I don’t know what you said to Steve, but he’s completely turned around – not disturbing class and he’s doing his work. Thanks so much for your help.”

Your classroom and/or home experiences and comments are most welcome.  Please email to






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