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The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Georgina Wood, SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow, writes in her think piece about the significance of developing two key areas within her school: form time and wellbeing. The focus of her research, coupled with the ‘pause’ the pandemic caused, lead to developing new strategies with measurable impact.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Albert Einstein (1955)


This reflection isn’t going to be a miraculous piece of findings which highlights a new way of teaching nor is it going to make suggestions of how to become the best leader. The Leadership Legacy Programme has in fact given me so much more than that. It has been labelled a ‘Think piece’ and that is exactly what it has enabled me to do, Think. In education, teachers are programmed into a state of ‘power on’ mode and very rarely choose to press the ‘pause’ button. Throughout this project and the past year, where not only has teaching and the whole education system taken a flip into the unknown but so has our entire world. And that is why I found this to be one of the most important and valuable projects within my teaching career. To be able to stop and reflect during this time, that will soon be a time in history, I found to be such a beneficial process and something I feel privileged to have been able to be a part of.

This research project itself initially began with two pathways which I felt to be significant areas of development in my school, Form Time and Wellbeing. Looking back at this now, these two starting points have led me on quite a journey, a journey of reflection and questioning. I would like to highlight here, the act of ‘questioning’ in relation to reflection. We as teachers, research, train, practice, develop a whole range of questioning techniques for students to develop their learning. However, when do we as teachers question our own practice. Robins et al (2003,) describe reflective practice as a tool which allows teachers (…) to understand themselves, their personal philosophies and the dynamics of their classroom more deeply. Reflection, therefore, is key in order to maximise our knowledge and understanding. This past year, I have questioned my teaching role, my Head of Year role, and quite frankly, the education system itself. If we don’t question something, how are we developing and learning ourselves? Nothing will be challenged and as a result will not be able to improve.

Context and Rationale

Well-being became a significant focal point when the pandemic enforced a closure of schools across the UK. Mental Health Foundation (2020) reported their findings to show that feelings of anxiety, loneliness and worry were increased amongst their respondents. Through communication with many students and their families during this time, I found that a sense of distress and unease were becoming common. As a result, I sought out training opportunities and independently accessed online courses surrounding mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic. These included: Measuring Wellbeing Cheshire East NHS webinar, SCiES Level 3 Safeguarding, MHFA Adult Mental Health Aware Course, Chester University – Supporting Children’s Mental Health, Well-being & Resilience Post-Covid webinar, Positive Psychology and wellbeing of staff Post-Covid webinar and recently I have trained to become a MHFA Mental Health First Aider.

The well-being of students and staff has been a deep focus of mine ever since one of my students in my first year of teaching, sadly took her own life. It is something which will stay with me forever. In that moment of hearing the devastating news, I witnessed the instant gathering of students and staff together supporting one another, as one big family. I look back at this time with great sadness alongside a huge wave of comfort. Teaching is so much more than being in a classroom and educating students. This has embedded my desire and hope to provide support for students pastorally and led to my step to becoming Head of Year.

The challenges we have faced this year, has proven the need for pastoral support even more so. Wellbeing has become widely recognised as a need to support for students and staff in school. Young Minds carried out a survey which highlighted that ‘69% of respondents described their mental health as poor since returning to school.’ On speaking with a number of students and parents during lockdown, students were craving the routine of school. They missed the interaction with peers and teachers and commented on the social element of school, having the biggest impact on their mental wellbeing. Some students are better equipped to be able to create their own routines at home. This links into Sue Williamson’s ‘Fighting For Deep Social Justice’ where Williamson discusses the inequality in education, stressing the importance in ‘Every child matters’, addressing the many factors that affect students’ chances of success. Williamson stresses that we should ‘provide those who start lower down on the social ladder with the social and cultural capital required to move upwards’, alongside what I think should be a greater focus on supporting their wellbeing.

Developing new strategies

Student Well-being

As a Head of Year with a heavy teaching timetable, I reflected on how I was using my time and who was receiving it. A large amount of my non-teaching time was focussed on dealing with behaviour. As teachers, we often give our time to the students who instantly require our attention, often or not this is dealing with behaviour. I have identified that there were 35% of Year 9s who last year did not receive any behaviour points but also received minimal achievement points. These students link to the grouping of students referred to as ‘RHINO students’ which Oakley et al (2006, p.193) identified as ‘Really Here in Name Only. Because the group in question did not disrupt lessons in an overt way, or break the school’s basic conventions, their disaffection was not immediately apparent.’ These students were sadly, the students who I did not know very well. I knew their names but did not know them as individuals. There was no acknowledgement for ‘doing the right thing’ day in and day out, but instead a focus on students who were displaying poor behaviour. Dad, H (2010, p.127) encourages the use of positive reinforcement for when it is used to reward a desirable behaviour, the unwanted behaviour will eventually extinguish. The aim is to outweigh the poor behaviour, through managing my time to focus more on the positive behaviours with the hope that this will increase student’s value and self-belief.

Through a focus group of 16 form representatives in Year 9, we addressed the topic of rewards and recognition. Students identified that ‘Reward Days’ worked well to allow students something to work towards, but daily/weekly instant recognition was something that they felt was missing which supports Kennedy’s theory (2008, p.213) that praise should be “immediate, frequent, enthusiastic, descriptive (…)”. The following week, I introduced weekly rewards for top achievement points received and for form tutor recognition. This has taken the form of a personal postcard home which allowed parents to know that their child was being recognised, alongside the student potentially also being rewarded at home. B.F Skinner’s (1958) well-known approach to behaviour addresses the notion of positive reinforcement and discusses how a desirable stimulus as a result of a positive action should encourage the repeat of this positive action.

Paul Dix, (2012) founder of Pivotal Education mirrors this approach, ‘Children don’t want an Argos catalogue of rewards (…) They want to show their parents that they are doing well. They want to feel pride. They want what every human being wants, the chance to feel important and valued for their efforts’. This is at the foundations of my strategy, to support a child to feel valued.

By having weekly awards, I have had the opportunity to see individuals on a 1:1 basis to recognise and praise the student face to face. As Kennedy (2008, p.213) noted, praise ‘’must involve eye contact”. I feel that this has built relationships and allowed the student to feel valued which in turn helps to build their own positive wellbeing. A greater focus on positive phone calls home have been an instant recognition for the student and parent. In turn, they have an added value of making the staff member feel valued too. I have addressed this within a staff forum to highlight the benefit of phoning home for more positive behaviours than poor behaviour and how this could have a greater affect overall.

Praise and recognition cannot just take place on a 1:1 basis as in order to reinforce the positive behaviour amongst others and therefore this needs to be recognised in front of the whole year group. Within the weekly assembly, I highlight and praise students who have worked hard that week. Dix (2012) argues that schools should not focus on minimising the behaviour of the few but recognise and celebrate the excellent behaviour of the many. Each form now has a ‘Shine points tracker’ poster within their form room and I have directed in form time on a Friday for form representatives to record shine/achievement points as a visual aid to encourage and allow form tutors to actively recognise positive behaviours.

Half termly and termly year group competitions are also a new addition as a result of student feedback. The half termly competitions recognise the ‘RHINO’ students who have 100% attendance, 0 behaviour points, 0 late marks – a competition which I found to be running successfully in one of the schools I visited as part of the shadowing experience. This has created a target for students to work towards and allows them to feel recognised for their positive behaviours.

With the addition of a Pastoral Support Manger joining the Pastoral team, we have worked together to run 1:1 sessions with identified students who require additional support to help improve their wellbeing. ‘Young Minds’ states that 91% of student respondents said that there is the same level or less mental health support since returning to school and in their report discussed the need from students to have time to talk. This has recognised students who require additional support with their wellbeing, and it has also identified students whom require additional support from outside agencies.

Peer mentoring began in response to looking into the wellbeing of some of the students in the year group whose behaviour posed challenges. A colleague and I decided to trial a number of mentoring sessions between a Year 9 student and a Sixth Form student who had previous issues earlier in their school years. The results have been of a significant value. Not only have the students built a relationship of support for one another but also the Year 9 student has felt pride in sharing their achievements. They have a greater focus in their attitude and understanding of their own behaviours. This is now being rolled out with more students in Year 9 and Sixth Form next term.

Staff Well-being

I first led a staff well-being session last year as a member of the school Teaching and Learning Team, whereby I carried out a survey researching how staff were feeling in school and what we could do in school to help. I managed a group who delivered a session of identified activities to support staff such as relaxation methods, fitness and arts and craft. Further to this, I have recently been asked to lead a staff wellbeing group in school and deliver CPD.

Through the MHFA Adult First Aid course, I have highlighted the importance of social interaction with others. Through speaking with staff members, there is a strong feeling of loneliness and struggling with the lack of staff interacting and mixing with each other. The wellbeing team have set out goals for the next term to support staff, building relationships and signposting staff who require further support. The initiative will involve:

  • Time to Talk – Use of Mental Health First Aiders, career progression talks, teaching and learning e.g. top tips for behaviour, focus groups for in school developments.
  • Practical solutions to combat issues such as stress, sleep, feeling overwhelmed through workshops on time management, list writing for short term/long term plans, self-care cards. Half termly staff blogs with top tips/ sign posting/ celebrating achievements.
  • AHCC Community group – Social activities to help staff to mix (pending Covid-19 restrictions), team quizzes, staff competitions, staff breakfasts/ ‘Time to Talk with Tea and Toast’, activities outside of school – running club commencing in January.


Student Well-being

Measuring a student’s wellbeing is difficult to achieve due to it not being something which has an instant result. Wellbeing can be measured long-term through scaling someone’s mental health, however, in the first instance, the short-term impacts have been highly rewarding. Parental engagement has been stronger due to recognition of their child doing well. Students are acknowledging postcards home and phone calls home by arriving to school the next day expressing their thanks. This shows how recognition is valued. Positive phone calls home have had a great affect through building positive communication with parents, students and teachers. We now set out an aim to make at least one positive phone call a day before leaving work which has had a positive impact on staff’s mind set. According to Otero (2015) (qtd in Rumfola, 2017) stated that ‘when a child’s environment becomes a positive atmosphere that takes notice to their positive behaviour the child is more likely to be physically and mentally present in the classroom’.

One of the most unexpected results of my research project but something which I have valued the most has been the building of rapport with students. ‘Getting to know our students’ is embedded into my teaching approach. I have always led my teaching style on creating positive relationships with students and responding to students as individuals and not as a full class or cohort. Every child has different needs and finding out about these needs is what will help support a positive wellbeing for that child. I have gained so much as a Head of Year through understanding how each student ‘works’, what their hobbies are, their likes and dislikes which has all come from the positive recognition and allowing students to gain trust to share parts of their personalities with you. This is what creates the foundation of successful pastoral care.

Staff Well-being

The impact of the staff wellbeing team is something which I hope over the course of the next year we will be able to analyse and continue to improve. Now more than ever, staff are requiring this need and staff themselves have already shared ideas for collaboration and support in order for the team to set off in the new year.

Moving Forward

As mentioned earlier, this project has provided so much more than a chance for reflection and research. This has impacted my whole strategy as a Head of Year with my prime focus of positive reinforcement, which in hand has affected the wellbeing of students and my own.

I will continue to develop the rewards and recognition within the year group with the hope to roll out reward competitions for the whole school. With the addition of timetabling Friday form time to focus on rewards, I will be working on setting a full week timetable for form tutors to follow within the year group. If found to work successfully, SLT have agreed to trial this with other year groups. I have continued to gain feedback from other schools on how they run Form time to help input new ideas that are already working well elsewhere.

The proposed timetable follows:

  • Monday – Positive Powers (a student well-being focus)
  • Tuesday – 1:1s/ Cultural literacy (a chance for 1:1s with form tutors to discuss behaviour and the whole class focus on literacy with a cultural link)
  • Wednesday – Whole school assembly
  • Thursday – 1:1s/ PSHCE (a chance for 1:1s with form tutors to discuss behaviour and the whole class focus on PSHCE topics in line with DfE guidance)
  • Friday – Rewards/ Recognition

Alongside another colleague, the mentoring group for Sixth Formers and Year 9 students will begin in January with a small number of students. After the success of 1 mentoring team, we now have a list of students who have signed up to carry this out for more students. This will also strengthen relationships across year groups in our school to create a strong sense of community.

Self-esteem sessions have begun this month with the Pastoral Support Manager and a group of girls in Year 9 to help support and educate the identified group whom are at greater risk of poor mental health, ‘focusing on the needs of individual young people’, as Williamson stresses is crucial for those from disadvantaged background.

With regards to the commencing of the Wellbeing Initiative in the new term, the next steps are now to build the team further in order to have a representative from all areas such as a Teaching Assistant, NQT, SLT, Admin. I look forward to leading this team and making a difference to help support the wellbeing of staff and students in school.


Einstein, A, from statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE magazine (2 May 1955). –Einstein, a Portrait, p. 102.

Dad, Hukam. (2010). Comparison of the Frequency and Effectiveness of Positive and Negative Reinforcement Practices in Schools. Contemporary Issues in Education Research. 127-135.

Dix, Paul (2012) the Guardian. Stop Ignoring Good Behaviour! [online] Available at:

Donnelly-Collins, K. (2013) Starving The Anxiety Gremlin. London: Jessica Kingsley

Jerry Oakley, Connie Wind, Dave Jones, Duncan Joseph & Margaret Bethel (2002) RHINOs: a research project about the quietly disaffected, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 10:2, 193-208, [online] Available:

Kennedy, Christina., Jolivette, Kristine. (2008). The Effects of Positive Verbal Reinforcement on the Time Spent Outside the Classroom for Students with Emotional and Behavioural Disorders in a Residential Setting. 211-221.

Robins, A., Ashbaker, B., Enriquez, J. and Morgan, J. (2003) Learning to reflect: professional practice for professionals and paraprofessionals. International Journal of Learning, 10: 2555–65.

Rumfola, L., (2017). Positive Reinforcement Positively Helps Students In The Classroom. [online] Digital Commons @Brockport. Available at:

Skinner, B. F. (1958). Reinforcement today. American Psychologist, 13(3), 94–99. (2020). [online] Autumn Report. Available at:

Williamson, S., (2019). Fighting For Deep Social Justice. London: SSAT.

Key Websites accessed:

Mental Health Foundation

Further CPD accessed to support project:

  • Chester University – Supporting Children’s Mental Health, Well-being & Resilience Post-Covid webinar, Positive Psychology and wellbeing of staff Post-Covid webinar May
  • MHFA Adult Mental Health Aware Course – Aug
  • Measuring Wellbeing Cheshire East NHS webinar – Aug
  • SCiES Level 3 Safeguarding – Sept
  • MHFA Mental Health First Aider. 6 Oct-3 Dec

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