3. How to create a warm, positive atmosphere

The carrot, not the stick.The counterintuitive message from yesterday: A major step toward encouraging students to practice is to stop caring whether they practice.

This actually works. It sounds very "long game", but it doesn't have to take forever to turn things around.

If you want students to practice, you’ve got to create an environment that is based on positive reinforcement.

Shame is a negative reinforcer, meaning that a person changes their behavior to remove the something unwanted. In other words, the person practices to avoid a feeling of shame.

Your disappointment or disapproval are negative reinforcers. The student will practice so that they don’t have to see your disappointed face or hear a disapproving tone in your voice.

Praise, on the other hand, is a positive reinforcer, meaning that a person changes their behavior to gain more.

Positive reinforcement works better because it involves good feelings. Over time, piano becomes associated with good feelings. In Skinnerian terms, it is a conditioned reinforcer.

The most important thing to consider here is that success on the instrument is also a positive reinforcer. Since we like to do what we’re good at, we will continue to play piano if we see results and feel good about our progress.

In the beginning, you may not be able to praise practice at home because there is none happening at all. Praise specific things that you see happening in the lesson, and then remind students (in a positive, upbeat way) that they will get even better results if they continue to work at home. “Look how much you learned in just ten minutes! Imagine if you played this same phrase every day at home! What do you think would happen?”

There will come a day when it will actually occur to your student to take your advice and try something out at home. Praise whatever efforts were made, and you will continue to see more.


In the spirit of connecting with your fellow teachers, I invite you to share your thoughts on this post in the comments. Consider the following: 

  • What, in this post, felt new to you?
  • What action might you take in relation to the ideas in this post?
  • What follow-up questions or suggestions do you have?