Pop Quiz: What do all these have in common?
- A pet you’ve left home alone for 12 hours is still overjoyed to see you when you get home from work.
- A sports fan who stays loyal to the team even after 35 years of losses.
- Letting a child know they’re a good person even when they misbehave or lie.
Answer: Each is an example of Unconditional Positive Regard, or UPR.
I learned about unconditional positive regard during my first year as a teacher. I remember one specific conversation I had with my department chair after a particularly disheartening class session during which I caught students cheating on a project. He coached me through my entangled feelings, first by reconnecting me with my values (Yes, I DO believe all students can learn), then by empathizing with me (It can feel like a personal attack when students misbehave in your class), then by reminding me that believing in all students means that I must believe in their capabilities even when they don’t believe in themselves (Children don’t cheat because they feel knowledgeable and confident…it’s usually the opposite that motivates such behavior). I didn’t know he was practicing UPR, but he was.
UPR, also known as client-centered therapy, was conceived by Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychotherapy. UPR means that one person accepts another person without judgement, contingency, or expectation. Rogers believed that confrontational interactions between people deters our innate need for self-actualization and fulfilling our potential, while empathy and understanding help develop this in ourselves and others.
Unconditional positive regard means that one person accepts another without judgment, contingency, or expectation. I don’t have to like everything you do in order to honor your humanity and offer you some grace in which you can make mistakes, learn from them, and grow.
UPR is also closely linked to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset model. If we agree with the tenets of Dweck’s growth mindset, that our basic human characteristics can be developed and cultivated through intentional effort, then it is this growth mindset that can help teachers practice and implement UPR in the classroom.
Of course, I know teachers want to have unconditional positive regard for all their students, and I know how challenging that can actually be some days. I know how hard it is to reset daily, to get past that nasty word a student said in class, to forget how defiant and rude a child was, or to forgive their inflammatory behavior and move on without having achieved a sense of “justice” or “due consequence” sometimes. TEACHERS are not expected to be perfect, either!
And yet, showing our students and colleagues unconditional positive regard actually helps support ourselves and our own emotional and physical health! According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, “As we do good in the world, that affects our cellular makeup and the functioning of our hearts. There is deep interconnection between what we do, what we feel, and how physically healthy we are (2013).”
Let’s break down what UPR is, and dig into what it looks like and sounds like when a teacher shows unconditional positive regard to their students.
There is nothing you must do or say to earn my positive regard
- Come as you are. Even if you’re grumpy or excitable.
- Be yourself. Even if you need a lot of my attention.
- Experience your thoughts and feelings. Even if they don’t align with mine.
Both my verbal and non-verbal interactions are warm
- What I say matters. Welcome. It’s nice to see you again.
- How I behave matters. Smiling not sighing.
- How I feel matters. Relaxed not tense.
How I view and interact with you is respectful
- I see your humanity. You are not expected to be perfect.
- I accept your humanity. You deserve my empathy.
- I support your humanity. We are all learning together.
For example, instead of always promoting positive narration, we can switch to practicing non-contingent interactions with students equally as much. Positive narration, such as “I’m so happy to see you put your name on your paper,” is effective for developing compliant behaviors in the classroom, but the positivity is contingent upon the acceptable behavior of the students—in this case, putting their names on their papers. A non-contingent interaction, such as “Good morning! Welcome to our classroom on this fine day” is still an inclusive and positive remark by a teacher, but the positivity is not contingent upon the learning or behavior of the students. It’s just positive and warm. Both kinds of interactions are important in the classroom.
What might be some other ways you can immediately practice UPR in your classroom? It might be as simple as smiling at every student who walks into your classroom, regardless of how they behaved yesterday. Or maybe when you’re circulating during the Do Now, you stop to ask students how their day is going. You might even keep a supply of snacks to which every student has access without monitoring who’s taking how much or how often. It might seem grossly unfair that one student keeps taking three granola bars each day, and it might be that this student is giving those to her younger siblings because they’re hungry when she walks them home from school.
As our spring semesters plod along, we can all feel the drain of a rigorous year moving towards testing season, and we can all start to get testy ourselves, short on both patience and grace. So reconnecting with your values, the reasons you became an educator in the first place, may be just the trick to help you maintain universal positive regard for yourself and for others.