As parents, how do you reinforce effort? Teachers, how does the amount of effort students give influence your beliefs about their capacity as learners? As a staff member at McREL, though not a formal educator, I've gained knowledge and insights into classroom practices that reinforce effort and, as a parent, I've learned how important it is to reinforce those practices at home.
My child moved from a private, literacy-rich, full-day preschool to a half-day kindergarten in a local public school. At my child's first parent-teacher meeting in his new school, I was impressed to learn that his teacher used writing rubrics to measure literacy. She presented a hand-drawn, rudimentary picture with little detail and no accompanying words and labeled it a 1. She labeled a more detailed picture with a few words added by the student a 2. The next one, labeled a 3, included even more detail in the picture, with additional colors and more words to describe the picture. Finally, a 4 was advanced, with much detail and accompanying sentences. She explained that, prior to beginning an assignment, she asked students to choose the number that they wanted to work toward. According to her, my son almost always chose to work toward a 2, putting forth minimal effort. His teacher recognized that he was capable of more, so sometimes, with coaxing, he would choose a 3.
I explained that I thought my son could be taught that the amount of effort he put in mattered; she responded that students came with a level of motivation that really could not be changed. Her assertion startled me, and I wasn't sure how to respond. Parent-teacher conferences are already so short, and there wasn't enough time to discuss this at length. I have to admit, though, that my heart broke a little. I want my child to be a confident learner who understands the importance of effort and wants to do his best. I believe reinforcing effort early is tied directly to development of lifelong motivation and achievement.
Throughout his young life, I've helped my son connect with the good feeling that arises from belief in himself and hard work directed at a goal. Having read about the detrimental effects of praise about being smart or having natural talent, I try to reinforce practice and effort with him, even in areas where he appears be naturally gifted, such as baseball. To connect effort to areas other than academics, I've begun reminding him that he has been developing and strengthening his hand-eye coordination and mad batting skills since he was 18 months old when we played baseball with a drumstick and small ball.
Wanting to give my son lifelong learning strategies that will help him to help himself, I referred to Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, (2nd ed.) (CITW). I started by using one of the key points in the classroom practices for reinforcing effort, working with him to make a connection between his own effort and achievement in his reading. He began working on letter and sound recognition in preschool, and I'm reminding him that all that effort is now coming together for him as an emerging reader. I want him to understand what it means to put forth effort over time, and determine a way to help him track his effort and achievement. Now that he is in first grade, with a reading log from the teacher that he needs to fill out, we'll refer back to his log to link effort to reading gains.
Creating confident learners requires dedication to effort, both in and out of the classroom. According to CITW, variables such as positive beliefs about a student's own competencies, recognition of the value of a task, and pleasure derived from task completion foster dedication to effort. Reinforcing effort early in development is instrumental to helping a child develop inner motivation. These motivating variables are further encouraged in engaging classrooms by strengthening the student's resolve to reach higher, placing the control over achievement into his hands. Effort is not static; it is organic. Effort grows within the child as he perseveres through difficulties faced in the classroom to reach for and find satisfying levels of success.
Teachers, how do you reinforce effort and provide recognition in the classroom? What do you consider best practices for parents to support you in reinforcing effort at home?
Mary Cullen is the administrative coordinator for McREL’s Center for Learning Innovation, supporting the publication of materials, guides, factsheets, and manuals. She holds a master's in applied communication from the University of Denver.