Look for the Good

Today’s guest author is Jill M. Flynn, M.Ed.. 

Jill Flynn has been an educator in a large public school system in Virginia for 18 years. She started her teaching career as a Special Education Teacher and loved working with students with multiple disabilities. For the last nine years she has worked as a Behavior Intervention Teacher. In this role she works with instructional staff to build their capacity to implement evidence-based interventions for students who may be struggling.

As a Behavior Intervention Teacher in a large public school system, I collaborate with teachers and other instructional staff when they have students who are struggling behaviorally or socially. When I am called in, not only are the students in crisis, but the staff often are as well. It is often difficult at that time for the staff to see beyond the behaviors to notice the “good” that the student also exhibits.

One of the first exercises I do with teachers working with these students is to tell them when they leave school that day; I want them to count how many red Toyotas they see as they drive home. Invariably, it becomes a contest, and the next day there is a loud discussion among the staff about who saw more cars and who was the winner! I do this exercise with them to show them that when they are intentionally looking for something, they will see it. They were intentionally looking for red Toyotas, and they saw many. 

When we look for red Toyotas we see them.

It is no different with behavior. If we intentionally look for the good things that students do or accomplish, we will see them. The challenging or stress-related behaviors students exhibit often get in the way of this, and teachers feel as if the student is not doing anything right.

All behaviors are not equal, and the behaviors we pay the most attention to are the ones we will continue to see. 

When I was working as a Special Education Teacher, I instructed students with multiple disabilities, including students with severe behavior challenges. Often when they came to be in my class, they had not experienced much success in school. They needed to be “caught being good” as much as possible to build their confidence and feelings of accomplishment. My students needed to be provided positive reinforcement for the socially appropriate behaviors they were demonstrating. 

I welcomed a kindergarten student to my class halfway through the school year. He had struggled that first half of the year and had some extreme and unsafe behaviors that were often dangerous. This curly-haired little guy was small in stature but had a big reputation. The minute he walked into my classroom, my “catch him being good” campaign began. I “caught” him entering the class, I “caught” him sitting at his desk, and I “caught” him being kind to others. Any positive behavior or interaction that I caught built his feelings of safety and, more importantly, our relationship. 

I also immediately enacted the “Magic Ratio.” The “Magic Ratio” was developed by Dr. Gottman and Dr. Levenson in the 1970s to build stronger marriages. It has since been an effective strategy to use in the educational setting. The “magic ratio “means that for every negative interaction during conflict or challenge, a stable and happy relationship has at least five (or more) positive interactions. For every negative interaction that my student and I may have had, I combatted it with five positive interactions. My student needed to feel safe and loved in school so that he could take risks with his learning.

It is no surprise that those unsafe behaviors decreased, and his positive, pro-social behavior increased.

Another example is when, as a Behavior intervention Teacher, I was called to a middle school science classroom for a teacher struggling with a defiant student. This student was consistently disrupting class and making it difficult for the teacher to teach and for the other students to learn. In my initial conversation with the teacher, I asked him, “What does the student do that is good?” The teacher was finding it difficult to answer my question and identify any times of the day that the student exhibited positive or on-task behaviors. I knew then that there was work to be done. I arranged to observe the student and the classroom several times, with the teacher and me sharing the goal of identifying times when the student could be “caught” doing the right thing. We both intentionally began to look for the good!

Just as when I asked the staff to look for red Toyotas, the science teacher and I looked for positive behaviors and began to see them. We identified that when the student first entered the science classroom at the start of class, he could consistently get his materials out and ready for learning. The science teacher began to use this area of success to catch the student being good. In fact, anything the student did that was positive when it came to getting materials was seen and reinforced. The teacher also began implementing the “Magic Ratio” and worked hard to balance negative interactions or redirections with positive comments. The student eventually had fewer disruptions in class and was delegated as the class helper when it came to supplies!

Looking for the good is not always easy. Students with challenging behaviors can be hard to support, especially when many other students also need attention. Looking for the good can provide several opportunities for children in the class to earn praise. The “Magic Ratio” is not really magic; it takes work. However, by being intentional in catching students being good and by counteracting negative interactions with positive ones, we build strong relationships that will set our struggling students up for success.

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