Breaking Through a Student's Self-sabotage

"Good job!" rolls off our tongues throughout the day, and most students are pleased to hear this positive reinforcement. But what do we do when a student rejects -- or even sabotages -- our praise?
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As teachers we constantly use praise and rewards as a means of encouraging and teaching our students. "Good job!" rolls off our tongues throughout the day, and most students are pleased to hear this positive reinforcement. But what do we do when a student rejects -- or even sabotages -- our praise? Some students will crumple up a paper after being told it was well done or roll their eyes or make a snarky comment when praised, while others display poor behavior just before they would have earned a prize. We should see these types of self-sabotage as the student's way of communicating that the current mode of praise and reinforcement makes them uncomfortable, and recognize that a different approach is called for.

It's important to discover the underlying cause of the behavior. In some cases, it might stem from self-esteem issues and/or negative thinking. Another possible -- and more serious -- reason could be depression, which causes students to feel they don't deserve positive attention. This makes them reject any attempts at praise. Social anxiety can also be a contributing factor, causing a student to feel uncomfortable with personalized attention. The underlying cause(s) need to be identified and addressed with support from a school mental health personnel, in order to ultimately change the student's behavior.

For students who have a difficult time accepting positive reinforcement, think about which types of praise are prompting the student's unwanted behavior. Public praise -- "Nice work, Tyler!" -- is a common culprit, especially in the middle school grades. In these cases, try giving praise privately. But sometimes giving a student positive attention verbally, even privately, is too intimate. We can get around this by writing a note, emailing the student, or establishing a non-verbal signal, like a thumbs-up, or an okay sign. This will allow the student to receive positive reinforcement in a less intense way.

The best way to decipher what type of praise or reinforcement a student can accept is to simply pull them aside and ask, "When I want to tell you that you're doing a great job, how should I let you know?" Work together with the student to make a plan that is comfortable for everyone. In addition, putting in the effort over time to build a relationship with the student can make him more susceptible to connecting and receiving input.

Students who use a point system to increase appropriate behavior may seem to sabotage it with inappropriate behavior just prior to earning a reward. These students might have figured out the number of times they need to be appropriate to get the prize. For instance, a student may have come close to earning an incentive after being cooperative all day, but then swears at the teacher ten minutes before he would have gotten his reward. We can prevent this type of sabotage by giving reinforcement in a random way so that the student won't be able to predict when the reinforcement is coming.

The important thing with all of these students is to consider is how each individual reacts to praise and rewards. Working with each student to make them comfortable will jump-start the process of reversing inappropriate behavior while building confidence and self-esteem.

Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. She is the co-author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D. (

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