Most parents dread getting a phone call from their child’s school. Usually, it’s a sign that something’s wrong. But when parents get a call from Kennita Ballard, more often than not, it brings a sigh of relief.
Walk into Ballard’s sixth grade language arts class during reading time, and her students are sprawled around the room, their noses in graphic novels. And then, Ballard calls over a student and picks up her phone.
“Hi sir, this is Miss Ballard,” she introduces herself. “I am Wayne’s language arts teacher, and I just wanted to say that I know that reading and writing has been challenging for Wayne, but he’s been working so hard, and it’s really going to come to shine.”
As Ballard hands him the phone to talk to his dad, Wayne holds back a shy smile. The phone call is a treat, but it’s not a special occasion. Ballard makes time every Friday to call her students’ families with a positive message.
She says it’s a policy at Jefferson County Public Schools to call home when a student comes close to failing a class. But when Ballard realized she was telling parents more about their kids’ problems than their successes, she decided to change things up.
“As soon as I see some type of growth, some type of glamorous, some type of anything positive, I’m going to take that chance to celebrate it,” Ballard said.
Ballard teaches language arts at Olmsted Academy North, an all boys’ middle school on the south side of Louisville. The school serves a high needs population. More than two-thirds of the students are economically disadvantaged. More than half of the students are black or brown. Among JCPS schools, it has one of the highest concentrations of students who are learning English or qualify for special education.
Ballard said a majority of her students start sixth grade reading at a third grade level. She says that just means they need more support.
“It’s about seeing all those good things that the child does, and setting them up for success,” Ballard said.
And research backs up what Ballard is doing in her classroom.
“Every single time a kid is successful with anything they do in school, and is told about it, statistically increases the probability of another success,” explains Terry Scott, a professor at University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development.
Scott studies classroom management and positive reinforcement. He and his team of researchers observe teacher-student interactions at JCPS — and around the world — looking for positive and negative feedback.
“The evidence for positive feedback is overwhelming,” Scott said, but he adds, “It doesn’t happen very often.”
Scott’s research team found elementary school students hear positive feedback from their teachers about once every seven-and-a-half minutes. But, he says, that rate goes down — “way down” — by middle school.
“And at high school, it’s incredibly low,” Scott said. “Our research shows that the average kid in a high school classroom hears more negative than positive from a teacher.”
That’s the average kid. The average rate of negative feedback from a teacher is higher for black male students, and for students with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders — for students like Ms. Ballard’s.
Scott said those trends are true at all the schools they studied; their observations at JCPS fall in line with general patterns. What he finds unusual is the way Ballard is approaching the balance between the negative and positive interactions she has with students and their families.
“What you’re describing, is somebody doing this systematically, that ‘I’m going to look for these kids doing it right,’” Scott said. “I think that’s very different and distinct, and I think that’s what makes this really important.”
Ballard especially tries to encourage her students after they’ve struggled.
“If I had to make a negative phone call, I’m going to find the first thing that I can do to celebrate,” Ballard said. “Because that let’s that child, again, know… ‘I’m watching you, I got your back, I see all of you.’”
So when her student Kamahri was suspended for bad behavior in another class, the first day he came back, she picked up her phone.
“Hi Ma’am, this is Miss Ballard,” she began.
“I know Kamahri just came off of a little issue. Kamahri sometimes makes bad choices, but overall he makes really good choices and I want to celebrate that and highlight that.
“He came in today, came straight to work, didn’t let anything hold him back.”
Ballard holds Kamahri’s hand while she talks to his mom. When the call is finished, I ask Kamahri why he thinks his teacher makes these calls.
“Because she loves us,” he said. “And because she wants us to be good and stay good, and have an education and move on to the seventh grade.”
Ballard says no one taught her to do this with students; she entered teaching through an alternative certification rather than studying education in college. But as a language arts teacher, using her words to lift up students just made sense.
“It’s not about just a piece of candy. It’s not about getting some type of star. It’s about we are recognizing with our words, what you’re able to do,” Ballard said.
U of L professor Terry Scott says he hopes more teachers learn to do what Ballard is doing — and that more colleges of education incorporate positive reinforcement in their curriculum, because research shows positivity in the classroom works.
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