I gave a keynote presentation called “Lessons Learned on my Autism Journey.” One of the lessons is about positive praise. The best part of this lesson is that you will most likely benefit no matter how old you are, no matter if you are male or female and no matter if you know anything about autism. This life lesson, in fact, is really not about autism at all. It’s about reinforcing positive behaviors.
In 2000, I saw the late Dr. Glen Latham speak for only one hour at an autism conference in New York. That short lecture impacted me greatly. Dr. Latham had a PhD in special education and was the grandfather of a boy with autism. Today I want to discuss his lecture and how positive reinforcement is important when working with children with autism.
The Importance of Positive Praise
Dr. Latham was the author of several parenting and education books. Two of his classic books include Positive Parenting, which is great for all parents of kids – toddlers through teens with and without special needs – and Behind the Schoolhouse Door: 8 Skills Every Teacher Needs.
Dr. Latham was often called in for the tough cases. He described how people would often warn him when he would go in to do an evaluation on a troubled child at school. I remember him saying it didn’t matter what age the child was or what the exact situation was like – it would always be pretty similar.
The aids and the teacher would say things like “You’ve never seen a kid like Nick. He is completely out of control and not able to learn anything. He is so disruptive to the other kids and sometimes hurts people.”
When Dr. Latham then observed kids like Nick, he would almost always find the same thing: well-meaning teachers and other staff members using 8, or in some cases many more, negative admonishments to every positive praise – telling Nick to stop it, settle down, be quiet, stand still in line, etc.
After his years of experience, Dr. Latham came up with the formula and said that everyone with and without disabilities needs approximately eight positives for every negative. He found kids with special needs, especially those not doing well in school, often received the opposite ratio with sometimes dozens of negative comments to every positive one.
Calculating the 8:1 Ratio
Since hearing Dr. Latham almost 2 decades ago, I often count the number of negative admonishments to positive praises when observing students. I try to focus on behavior specific praise.
I simply make a column and tally positive praises or gestures on one side. This can be things like “great job standing in line” or “awesome that you completed this whole sheet of math problems” or simply a thumbs-up.
In the other column I write down or tally all the negative comments and gestures. Many professionals feel that if they say things with a smile on their face they’re still being positive. But any nagging such as “remember to sit criss cross applesauce” or “remember we need to share” belong in the negative column. Even simply raising your eyebrows or shaking your head no is considered negative.
If you have a child or client with major problem behaviors, the easiest thing you can do is to start making a sheet and counting positive and negative comments in 15-minute increments. Maybe an hour.
Since you need to be dishing out 8 positives for every 1 negative, if you find yourself doing a lot of complaining, being negative, nagging, or gossiping, I encourage you to stop and wipe that slate clean. Then start the ratio of 8 positives to every negative over again! If you really want to have fun, you can try to start counting your positive to negative ratio!
Who Needs Positive Praise?
Also, remember that our kids aren’t the only ones that need a positive to every negative – so do the staff working with the kids.
- the behavior analyst
- the speech therapist
- the parents
- your husband or wife
- your typically developing kids
- the store clerk
- the waitress
They all need a lot more positives than negatives.
Being more positive should help you in every endeavor and may very well improve your life.
When you can sit back and observe, I believe you can change the world by giving more positive praise! I encourage you to take 15 min today to count the positive to negative ratio for your child or client with autism.