The sign on the classroom door, "Positive Attitudes Only" was well intentioned. It was an effort on the part of a teacher to encourage more positive student attitudes. It was created and put on display as a way to motivate all who enter to bring with them more than their books, a pencil and their homework. "Bring a positive attitude as you enter," was the desired message.
We have observed "Positive Attitudes Only" signs in several schools lately. Similar variations of this theme include:
"Negative Attitudes Not Allowed Beyond This Point."
"Enter with a Positive Attitude Only."
"Drop Your Negativity as You Enter."
"Only Positive Attitudes Permitted."
The problem with these displayed pronouncements is that they communicate to students that showing negative emotions is unwelcome. In addition, they communicate that if you are feeling negative, YOU are not welcome.
Do we really want students to believe that if they are feeling depressed they are not welcome in our classrooms? If they are sad because they got cut from the volleyball team or their dog died last night should they go someplace else? If they enter with fear that they might be bullied in the lunch room next hour, should they stand out in the hall until their fear goes away? If the previous teacher last hour humiliated them in front of the class do we want them to wipe that incident away and put a smile on their face before they enter?
"Positive Attitudes Only" can be experienced as "You better have a smile on your face and pretend like you feel happy or else…" That approach reveals more information about OUR needs than it does about the needs of our students. It communicates that we need students to be happy in order for us to feel worthwhile and competent. Why not just tell students, "Look happy, fake happy, and pretend happy or don't bother coming in here because I can only handle positive emotions and expressions. Numb out your real feelings and only show the ones that I am comfortable with, the ones that make my life easier."
Negative feelings aren't going to go away simply because we prefer positive attitudes. Those feeling are going to be hidden and continue to live under the surface where they go unseen. Later, they will rise to the top, often in explosive outbursts, in seemingly unrelated situations.
A more valuable classroom atmosphere than one created with "Positive Attitudes Only" would be one where students can feel and express all their emotions, not just those emotions that demonstrate contentedness and pleasure. It would be one where students learn to recognize their feelings, name them and express them in healthy helpful ways.
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