I showed up for class early; it was a 5th and 6th grade, combo class. Students lined up outside the door before coming in. Sam was one of the last students to get into line and certainly, the last one to stop talking to friends. Sam, age 12, is the tallest, biggest and the best looking of his class. If he keeps growing, he will outsize me in just a couple of years. Given the dyed hair, the big size and the obvious attitude, I knew I would have my hands full with this one.

I started my class as I usually do; going over the rules of raising your hand, staying in your seat and reading a book when done. Then, I incorporated my new favorite, which is the Happy/Sad board. Students get one Happy point for correct answers, being helpful, passing out papers, asking to use the restroom, etc. They get one Sad point for talking when they should be listening or when they are supposed to be doing their work.

I explained these rules to a very silent class who were trying to decide if I planned to eat them or not. As I began to give points to students for doing lunch count, taking attendance to the office, handing out papers and the like, they started to get the idea and then began ‘working’ for points.

Some time ago I was introduced to the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies (Merton, 1948) meaning that what we believe about either ourselves or another person, frequently begin to manifest into actual patterns of behavior. Sam and a couple of other students had desks placed oddly on the edge of other students. This was an apparent effort on the part of the teacher to control ‘outré’ behavior. Sam began to almost immediate chitter-chat with the students at his table. I handed out morning work in math and it appeared that he knew how to do the equations. I called him and another student to the front to show us how the problem was done and to explain their method. After doing that, both students got to write their names on the board and to then get a point.

I deliberately called on Sam on other occasions so that he would have a chance to earn points on the board. Then, when his behavior started to deteriorate into silliness and goofing with other students, I had him march up to the front and erase points off the board. His co-conspirators also got to do the same thing. The important part of this punishment is that it is immediate and clear. There are no parents, counselors, principals involved. The student gets to give himself the reward or punishment right then and there. It is important when using methods such as this that the teacher has ‘with-it-ness,’ meaning that you are alert to what is going on in class; the good and the bad. Students need to be ‘caught’ doing things right as well as when they do things wrong.

At recess, I pulled Sam over to talk to me when the other students had left the room. I told him he could recapture those lost points but he had to stop goofing with the other students. End of lecture; very clear-cut, not very long and demanding no promises. It was going to be in his hands how this thing went.

After recess, I consulted my Happy Board and one by one called the students up to the front and gave them each a sticker from a page of popular Disney characters. Sam had re-earned one point so he got one too. A couple of times Sam attempted to engage me in discussions about ‘why do we have to do this anyway,’ kind of thing and I would not engage with him.

By the end of the day, Sam was working on his packet the way he was supposed to do and actually turned it in before any of the other 6th graders. One student was attempting to goof with him again and he told the kid to leave him alone because ‘he needed to finish his work.’ Unbelievable! Toward the end of the day, I handed out stickers one more time and Sam got a second sticker. It is important to realize that although the students do like the stickers, it is more the honor of getting called up to the front for good behavior and getting to show off a little in front of their classmates that is really ‘the thing.’

In the Calvete article the author points out that deep schemas of the adolescent individual predict surface-level anxious thoughts and these perpetuate more negative schemas. Maladaptive schemas maintain social anxiety. Negative self-imagery contributes to social phobias. Also, socially anxious individuals seek out negative information to reinforce preconceived notions about themselves because that is what they are comfortable with. The underlying negative self-schemas affect behavior and maintain social anxiety.

Sam is a twelve-year old boy who is dying his hair. This indicates a need to be ‘different’. He chatters incessantly which indicates an ‘other-directedness’ as indicates by Calvete and a constant need for approval from others. He has a hard time making eye contact and is argumentative. He is not autistic and this would suggest a trust problem with significant adults in his life. As teachers, our job is not to psychoanalyze Sam’s behavior constantly, but to figure out simple measures that will get him and keep him on track long enough so that he can utilize the brain he has to achieve, get some good grades and find new ways to feel better about himself. This is not just about learning the material, it is a process in class of getting the students re-organized, on task and moving along so they feel they can accomplish and handle the material and master what is in front of them.

Some may argue against the use of ‘rewards’ to encourage behavior. Research has shown that incentives can be moderately successful when they are well specified and well targeted. (Gneezy, Meier and Rey-Biel, 2011). These students are eleven and twelve years old. Eventually, we hope that they will become more ‘inner directed’ and less ‘reward or outer directed’ but that can still take some time. Regardless, all people enjoy positive recognition for doing well.

In this and in all classroom settings and also in parenting; it is the job of the teacher/parent, to teach the student/children to gradually think for themselves and to become independent in their thoughts and actions and to become capable of taking care of themselves and making proper choices. It is a long process involved in ‘letting go of the reins’ and gradually allowing the students to more and more to take control of their own learning and eventually, their own lives.



Calvete, E, Orie I. and Hankin, B. L. (2013). Early Maladaptive Schemas and Social Anxiety in Adolescents, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 27, pgs 278-288.

Gneezy, Uri, Meier, Stephen and Rey-Biel, Pedro (2011). When and Why Incentives Don’t Work to Modify Behavior, Journal of Economic Perpectives, Vol. 25, #4, pgs 191-210.

Merton, Robert K. (1948). Self-fulfilling Prophecy, The Antioch Review, Vol.  8, (#2-Summer) : pgs 193-210, retrieved Internet 5/4/2014.