October 22, 2014

Celebrate small successes and watch your student grow

For years, parents and teachers have sung the praises of—you guessed it—praise. According to their methods, students learn to repeat good behaviors based on the promise of triumphant celebration. Many teachers center their “classroom management” strategies around reward for good reason: Research shows that celebrating incremental success both corrals unruly behaviors and promotes long-term motivation. Celebrating a small “win” along the path to loftier goals not only boosts confidence, but also generates an appropriate mindset for ongoing achievement. Celebration shows that hard work can be fulfilling, and keeps people of all ages from giving up in the face of difficulty. When  positive reinforcement, like rewards, praise, and celebration, have so many collective benefits, it seems crazy not to take advantage! Let’s break down the overwhelming evidence that celebrating success really works:cartoon-giving-thumbs-up-15178092

We learn through conditioning

In 1953, Psychologist B.F. Skinner identified a method of learning that can reinforce or “condition” us to behave in particular ways. This phenomenon is called “Operant Conditioning” and occurs when a person or animal associates certain behaviors with specific consequences. Those associations, over time, form strong neurological connections and promote behavioral routines. For example, when a child uses productive study skills and receives praise from a tutor, their brain creates a lasting connection between those two phenomena. Likewise, the brain associates behavior and reward in these familiar examples of Skinner’s paradigm:

  1. A child finishes all of her vegetables (behavior) in order to have dessert (reward).
  2. A driver abides by speed limits (behavior) so he can avoid getting a ticket (reward).
  3. An athlete works hard in practice (behavior) so she can play in this week’s game (reward).
  4. A student strives for straight A’s (behavior) to receive praise from his parents (reward).

These connections, in turn, associate a difficult situation (vegetables, studying, athletics) with consistently positive outcomes. They increase enjoyment of hard work, willingness to go the extra mile, and likelihood of building good habits. But—Why is reward so powerful? And how does it affect the long-term?

Praise and Encouragement Lead to Intrinsic Motivation

Operant conditioning, through the promise of reward, creates connections in the brain that exist even after the reward is removed. When this happens, extrinsic rewards, like the dessert or praise you offer, transform into intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation can be achieved when children’s brains associate triumph with both the reward you give them, and the “feel-good” sensation of receiving it. Eventually, the brain recognizes achievement as a time to “feel good,” whether dessert is included or not! Then, students feel motivated within their own selves; they achieve because it makes them feel proud, accomplished, and confident. Intrinsic motivation is said to be the single most important motivational factor, since it allows students to achieve independence, responsibility, and mastery of their subjects without pressure from the outside.

Celebration Trounces Defeat!

Another crucial benefit of celebration is its ability to overcome failure. In today’s society, where busyness is key, students take on nearly insurmountable lineups of AP courses, varsity sports, instruments, and community service. With so many sky-high goals, it’s important to remain positive and acknowledge both incremental progress and completed objectives. A student might look at their grades and see that they haven’t quite gotten that A+ in organic chemistry; BUT—acknowledging that they’ve created a more efficient study strategy, brought their grade up by 5 points, or effectively memorized an amino acid chart will keep them striving to learn more.

Engaging Minds Celebrates All Success

At Engaging Minds, we celebrate our students because we understand the long and short-term benefits of positive reinforcement. Our tutors emphasize student progress, however big or small it may be. We show our students that, even when their grades aren’t perfect, they have mastered something to be proud of. Sometimes it’s a single concept, a productive test-taking strategy, or an improved sense of time-management. We steer our students away from feelings of defeat, guiding them toward confidence and intrinsic motivation.

You can do the same at home and celebrate your child’s latest triumph! Point out their shining moments. If you notice your daughter applying great focus, mention how excited you are to see that. Tell your son that, even though his biology class is difficult, he’s done an excellent job preparing notes for the next exam. A little celebration doesn’t take much effort, but the results will go a long way.