Shop For Materials


How to Overcome the Balancing Act Between the Positive and the Negative

Author: Kathleen Nelson-Simley Posted: Thursday - September 3, 2020

Picture this scenario… Kathleen, a third grader, is working hard on her math assignment and asks for your help. You review her work and your eyes are drawn to one of the 20 multiplication problems: 5 × 6 = 35. You note her mistake and continue scanning for other errors. You note two more incorrect answers before giving the assignment back to her. You ask her to correct the three wrong answers.

Now, hang on to this picture for a bit…

In last week’s blog I wrote about the importance of establishing standards of behavior with students in the first days of the new school year. The topic prompted a good number of emails to me.

The most asked question by readers was, “What are consequences I can use online when students aren’t living up to the standards of behavior?”

I understand why this question would quickly come to mind when you think about managing students’ behavior, especially if virtual learning is unchartered territory for you. Typically, we don’t worry about the students who will live up to the standards. They aren’t our problem. We worry more about the students who won’t live up to them. They are the ones who create challenges, chaos, stress and frustration for us.

You do need to be prepared to address problem behavior when it happens - even online. You can’t avoid it and ignoring the behavior won’t help.

I would encourage you to think about what the normal consequences would be to certain negative behavior if you were meeting in-person. Common consequences are verbal warnings, re-direction, “timeout”, giving an apology, making a phone call to a parent, one-on-one meeting with teacher, counselor or administrator or removal from the group. Think about how you can adapt these consequences to work in a virtual world. Many of them can work with thought, creativity and integrating restorative justice methods into your approach. For recommendations on how to use restorative practices when dealing with problem behavior online, download this resource, Responsive Restorative Practices & Remote Learning.

I hope this answers the question for those of you who inquired.


When thinking about using standards of behavior effectively with students, you need to also ask yourself this question, “What can I do to help my students live up to the standards of behavior online?”

If you want to have more positive than negative behavior from your students, you need to focus more on what they are doing right or is expected of them, than focusing on the negative or what they are doing wrong. Unfortunately, research has shown that teachers often tend to punish students for problem behavior more than they praise them for appropriate behavior. This lopsided approach can have a negative effect by fostering even more problem behaviors. More times than not, the behavior you pay more attention to influences the behavior you get more of.

BoystownSo, pay more attention to the positive. It will be there. Remembering to do this might be difficult, but it’s so important. It starts with you recognizing positive behaviors when they are happening and then praising and reinforcing them.

Studies show that praise and reinforcement is a powerful and effective behavior management tool (even more than giving material rewards) and one you can use virtually with students. We all value being praised and recognized when we are doing good. It inspires us to work harder and do better. It nurtures our self-esteem and confidence. And, for students, it can boost their learning and increase their academic success.

Try to follow these three steps when using praise and reinforcement with your students:

  1. Show your approval using words and actions to express your satisfaction.

  2. Make sure the student understands exactly what he or she did to deserve your praise by specifically describing the positive behavior.

  3. Give a reason as to why their positive behavior is important. Tell them what the outcome of their behavior is or will be.

Offering praise and reinforcement in this way lets students know what behavior is expected of them, that it’s important and it’s valued by you. It will increase the likelihood of them repeating the behavior again. It also sends a message to other students who want your attention and affirmation. They will learn what behaviors to imitate to get the same reinforcement and recognition from you.

In the same way, positive reinforcement can decrease problem behaviors. When a student is not living up to a standard or exhibiting negative behaviors, use this opportunity as a teachable moment for them and all the other students. Let the student know what they are doing that is inappropriate, but more importantly, what behavior is more appropriate from them instead. When you redirect a student from an inappropriate to an appropriate behavior like this the other students also learn what is unacceptable behavior.

Trust yourself and believe that you can minimize problem behaviors and increase positive behaviors with your students online using standards of behavior. It just requires you to be attentive, look for more positive behaviors than negative and praise and reinforce them when they happen.

Now, let’s go back to that picture of you and Kathleen that I asked you to hold on to…

When you reviewed her assignment looking for only the wrong answers and your feedback to her was only on what she had wrong, you missed an important opportunity with her. You missed the chance to offer Kathleen praise for the 17 answers she had correct.

Know that it’s never too late to take go back and praise and affirm a student for doing something right, including Kathleen.

P.S. Are you a parent who is struggling with your child's behavior right now? Please know that many of the same tips in this post can work with your child at home. Just remember this...catch your child being good more than they are being bad. When you do this enough times over consistently you might be surprised at the outcome you get.