As educators and counselors, we're constantly exploring hacks and ways to motivate and engage our students. In my over 15 years of working in higher education I find that the most simplistic approach tends to have the strongest impact. This hack is the most simplistic approach to creating engagement and motivation with students and it is something that everyone on campus can do, not just academic counselors.
Today, I want to share a powerful approach rooted in B.F. Skinner's Behavioral Theory, particularly his concept of positive reinforcement that I use with my students and clients.
Skinner, a renowned behaviorist, emphasized that positive outcomes following a behavior increase the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. In the context of counseling, this translates into acknowledging and praising the efforts our students make to attend sessions and engage with their education, especially when they overcome significant challenges.
Consider a student who juggles childcare responsibilities, a job and school and still manages to arrive for their counseling session. An effective way to apply Skinner's theory here would be to say:
"I'm impressed by the effort you took to be here today, balancing your responsibilities. Your dedication to your education, despite these challenges, is admirable. I'm proud of you and happy to see you here!"
Consider the same student, perched at the admissions office counter, upset because her student portal is malfunctioning and isn't allowing her to register for the courses her counselor told her she needed, with her two impatient little children at her side asking, 'Mommy, can we go home now?
"I can see that you're managing quite a lot at this moment, and it's impressive how you're handling these challenges. It's absolutely the right decision to seek help when things get tough, especially with such important tasks like registering for your courses. It shows a great deal of resilience and commitment to your education. Let’s work through this together. I’m here to assist you every step of the way to make sure you get registered for the courses you need. You're doing an excellent job, and I'm here to support you."
This approach does several things:
Validates their Struggle: It recognizes their specific challenges, making them feel seen and understood.
Employs Positive Reinforcement: Expressing pride and happiness acts as a positive reinforcement, which, according to Skinner, encourages the repetition of the constructive behavior.
Strengthens Student Resilience: It highlights their resilience and strengths, fostering a positive self-concept.
From my own experience, the impact of such positive reinforcement is clear. After sending "kudos" or "good job" emails to students, I've observed a significant increase in their likelihood to complete their studies. Moreover, these students tend to engage more actively with counselors and the college. This suggests that a little recognition goes a long way in fostering a positive educational journey.
In the fabric of our daily lives, the occurrence of positive reinforcement is surprisingly rare, a stark contrast to its proven efficacy. Society often emphasizes criticism over commendation, and achievements are frequently met with expectations of further success rather than recognition of the effort made.
This societal tendency to overlook the power of positive reinforcement can lead to a culture where individuals feel undervalued and underappreciated, impacting their motivation and self-esteem. In our fast-paced world, where achievements are quickly overshadowed by new goals, taking the time to acknowledge and celebrate even small victories becomes crucial.
By integrating more positive reinforcement into our daily interactions with students or clients we can create a more supportive and empowering environment. This shift not only fosters individual growth but also cultivates a more compassionate and appreciative society.
By adopting this Skinnerian approach in our counseling sessions, we not only motivate our students but also create a more supportive and empowering educational environment. This can significantly improve both academic and personal outcomes, making a lasting impact on our students' lives.
Do you use this approach with your students? Please share your thoughts.