Dr. Pierson shares a short reflection about betting on the success of your students and the transformative power of praise.
Pushing Your Chips Across the Table

This is a true story. It’s a scary story. And, it’s not even Halloween.

I have written about this before, but a recent incident about a student with dyslexia and ADHD and the weekly spelling list (I know, scary, right?) compelled me to write about it again. I am talking about ensuring that your students, all of your students, but particularly those with dyslexia or other language-based learning disorders, leave your classroom every day with more chips in their baskets than when they walked through your door.

I first heard Richard Lavoie speak about this concept many years ago. Imagine each of your students holding a basket when they walk into your classroom that contains the chips they have received for good behavior, successes, and positive aspects in their life. Getting a good night's sleep, waking to a good breakfast, coming to school with homework completed, having scored a goal at last night’s soccer game—all these contribute to bolstering one’s sense of self (i.e., filling up that basket of chips). Receiving praise for turning in the homework assignment—more chips; getting yesterday’s test back with good marks—more chips; crossing the finish line first in gym—more chips… I think you get the picture.

Now, picture the basket of the child who scored the winning goal at the soccer game (chips!), but then who came home to have to struggle to learn 25 words for the spelling test ending up in tears saying, “I’m stupid.” Can you see the chips falling from the basket? Then the next day, the class is told, in regard to the spelling words, to “divide your paper into three columns. In column 1, put all the words where ‘e’ says its long sound in the 1st syllable (e.g., fever, meaning, season). In column 2, put all the words where ‘e’ says its short sound (spelled ‘ea’) in the 1st syllable (e.g., sweater, pleasant, leather), and in the 3rd column, put the words where ‘e’ says its long sound in the 2nd syllable (e.g., succeed, compete, thirteen).”

Then, imagine completing this assignment only to have your teacher “get really mad” at you because you put heavy, healthy, and steady in the 3rd column (i.e., where long ‘e’ is in the 2nd syllable). What? How can that be wrong? The long ‘e’ sound is in the 2nd syllable in heavy, healthy, and steady! BUT the teacher wanted those words to go in the 2nd column (i.e., short ‘e’ in the 1st syllable). So, what happened? This student with dyslexia and ADHD who had correctly differentiated long and short ‘e’ in the 1st and 2nd syllables of 25/25 words had to erase those words that had both short ‘e’ in the 1st syllable and long ‘e’ spelled with ‘y’ in the 2nd syllable and rewrite them in the 2nd column. And there went his chips pouring out of the basket onto the floor.

Later that same morning, this same student, when he hadn’t gotten all the words copied down for a unit of study, was made to stay in from recess and copy those words. Can you hear the chips falling? This is a student with dyslexia and ADHD. This a student who has an IEP with accommodations. This is student who I know left home that morning with a basketful of chips, so many, he had to hold his hand on top of them to keep them from spilling out…and who came home from school with virtually an empty basket.

No wonder he asked me if I wanted to hear about his “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day yesterday.”

It reminds me of the Jackson Browne line, “…You've got the power over what we do. You can sit there and wait or you can pull us through…”

It’s a true story and a scary one, but it did not need to happen. As you say goodbye to your students every day, every hour, ask yourself, “Is each one leaving with more chips in that basket than when they came through my door?” Just to be safe, give one more bit of praise to ensure they will have to hold their hands on top of their baskets to keep the chips inside. And you will help to pull them through whatever life decides to throw at them next. You’ve got the power.