The Power of “Good” Referrals with Students

I love the story of the 7-year old girl who grabbed her baseball bat, her mitt and a ball and asked her dad if they could go outside and play some baseball. She then followed her request with some clear instructions for him: “I’ll hit the ball, and you say, ‘good job.’”

It has been said, “Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul.”

Most of us think we don’t need words of affirmation to get through our day, but in reality, we fair better when someone affirms the good we’re accomplishing. Unfortunately, people are far better at negative expressions than positive ones. This is true for students and adults.

I love how one school decided to change the narrative.

How One Good Idea Got Sparked  

McEachern High School is part of Cobb County Schools, located northwest of Atlanta, GA. Like most high schools, their teachers must “write up” students for breaking rules or poor conduct. For some students, this means being sent to the Assistant Principal’s office for detentions, suspensions or some other punishment. The fact is, this usually doesn’t make things better. According to research, those punishments don’t improve students’ behavior.

Dr. Matthew Lawrence, a history and economics teacher, said he had a ritual. Every Friday, he’d return home and begin making phone calls regarding all the “bad things” students had done: failing grades, poor behavior, absentees, etc. Afterward, he started recalling how some of his students had modeled excellent attitudes or work and felt he should call their parents as well. When he did, it had an immediate effect. Those students would come in on Monday, very appreciative of what Dr. Lawrence had initiated. And, that behavior continued.

All Matt needed was an official way to “write up” positive performance, not just negative.

At McEachern High School, teachers now have the option to change their approach to discipline by writing kids up for positive behaviors instead of focusing on negative ones. They have a new kind of “referral form.” Starting with Dr. Lawrence and continuing to most of the faculty, they are “writing up” the great attitudes and actions and performances students are modeling. According to an NPR article, “The document goes to assistant principal Dan Torrenti. He calls students into his office one by one. They have no idea why they’re being summoned. Torrenti surprises them with the good news. He calls their parents in front of them to tell them, too. He gives them a copy of the referral. Another copy goes in their file, the way a report card would.”

Becoming a Good Finder

This obviously requires a paradigm shift for teachers, who are conditioned to spot anything wrong. Now, these faculty have their antennas up to spot anything good, not just wrong. And there is good reason to believe it could change the campus culture. Rutgers University psychology professor Anne Gregory says, “We have a lot of evidence that praising positive behavior can strengthen that positive behavior, especially when teachers are using what’s called ‘specific praise.’”

This changes a student’s perception of the “principal’s office” and “referral forms.”

“Kids who are sometimes on the borderline of making bad decisions, if you catch them doing something good and write them up for doing something good, I’ve found it can change their entire trajectory for the rest of the semester,” Lawrence said.

Motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, used to talk about becoming a “good finder.” He reported that people who are able to find something good to say about another person within the first 30 seconds of meeting them, tend to be happier and more successful throughout their lives. This simply means that both the giver and the receiver of “good finding” can benefit.

Years ago, research psychologist John Gottman discovered that people—perhaps especially young people—need a 5 to 1 ratio:  To maintain positive progress, they need five positive affirmations for every one negative criticism. This means that most schools have the referral system all wrong. Students need both clear constructive criticism and clear positive affirmation as well. Not hyperbole. Just genuine, specific, positive affirmation. Matt Lawrence can vouch for this at McEachern High School with his positive referrals:

“The word will kind of get out that somebody got one of these [positive referrals] and then I’ll have other students come to me and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Lawrence, what do I have to do to get one of those?’” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘You’ve got to take care of business, and you’ve got to impress me, and we’ll see what happens.”

If you’re not already doing this, I encourage you to begin, and like Lawrence, see what happens.

The Power of “Good” Referrals with Students