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Promoting Positive Connections

Motivation beyond curriculum and tell-offs

Handout From The Third International SPELD Conference, Adelaide April 2007.

We are the first generation to have the opportunity to understand learning difficulties, autism spectrum disorders, giftedness, ADHD and so on. The question we will eventually be judged on is... "How well did we deal with students identified with these issues?"

I want take you on a journey that explores the value of promoting positive connections with students. 'Setting up for Success' is beyond being gushy or having to resort to superficial motivational techniques. Sure, being sparkling and energising helps, but my intention is to travel a road that begins with the importance of 'our attitudes'. I, along with an influential group of others, am convinced that student success hinges on the quality of our relationship with them simply because a teacher's influence can be completely transforming (Burrows 2004, Elias 2003, Mc Laughlin 2003, Weare 2000). Anecdotal and research based evidence show that constructive teacher attitudes are prerequisites for setting students up for success. And, this fundamental understanding is far more crucial for students who display learning difficulties, or do not yet have well developed internal resources of perseverance, motivation and self-regulation.

Social justice understandings and legislations
The development of social justice understandings and legislations, such as the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 and more recently the education standards, has seen the spotlight shift towards educators. Now, rather than seeing the behavioural or learning difficulty as being solely with the student, educators are expected to be thinking and behaving in ways to assist when the student's self-regulatory and learning systems are not developing as they should.

Predictors of Success
There is an abundance of research concerning how people find success (Mischel, M. the 'marshmallow' study, retrieved March, 2007, Gottesman 1979, Thomas & Pashley 1982, Hoffman et al. 1987, Johnson & Blalock 1987, Kavale 1988, Gerber, Ginsberg & Reiff 1992, Reiff, Gerber & Ginsberg 1997). Raskin's study, designed to identify the attributes of highly successful adults who had dyslexia is particularly well known (Raskind et al. 2002).The adults in the study did not have specific literacy interventions, but rather, the focus was on their personal skills and abilities as they developed. He, and his colleagues, found there are a unique set of personal qualities, attitudes and behaviours that are clearly predictive of success. They included:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Perseverance
  3. Pro-activity
  4. Emotional stability
  5. Goal setting
  6. Presence and use of support systems
These were shown to be more powerful predictors of success than; IQ, academic achievement, life stressors, age, gender or socioeconomic circumstance. This is one, among many studies, that echo the need for educators to include the promotion of positive connections in their teaching repertoire as a way to increase a student's awareness, as well as raising their resilience and optimism.

A glimpse of how it is
Despite these deeply researched and well developed understandings Australian schools are struggling to keep many students connected and engaged. In 2001, researchers Trent & Slade from Flinders University of South Australia summarised the views of 1800 South Australian adolescent males about their schooling. Most surveyed believed that school is out of date and is too distant from real life. Most felt that the gap between school life and their real life continues to grow, and despite knowing the cost, are opting for other lives (Trent & Slade, June 2001).

Roadblocks to change
What are the roadblocks that convince parents and educators to discount the possibilities of change?

The historical control-punishment design
The historical control-punishment design still pervades the thinking of enough teachers, administrators and educational policy-makers to inhibit constructive change for students in schools. Just think about it! It's still more common, and acceptable, for teachers to react punitively to poor student performance or poor motivation rather than to find emotionally connecting ways to restructure their vacillating performance. This time-honoured design does little to invite transformation, instead, it tends to push a number of vulnerable students into anger and resentment. Many students learn early in their schooling that it doesn't really matter what they say or do because their impulsiveness, forgetfulness or slip-up will attract a tell-off, a 'red-slip,' time out, demerit or detention. I see compelling value in adopting the 'restorative practice' model that is slowly emerging in a few of our innovative schools. It supports students to deal with their issues, and because the process is seen by students as transparent, relational and not loaded against them, remarkably positive differences in student behaviour and wellbeing is being witnessed (Thorsborne & Vinegrad, 2005).

'Deficit thinking'
Weiner (2006) challenges us with the view of 'the deficit paradigm'- the assumption that poor student performance must be fixed by teachers. First off, we do not have the skills to 'fix' anyone, and a preoccupation about correcting student difficulties or performance contrives a situation where both teachers and students often find themselves in win/lose situations. This style of thinking blinds us from seeing the strengths of students and their potential to transform. Yet, the 'deficit way of thinking' has long been embedded in the culture of schooling.

Teacher 'demandingness'
Historically teachers have been strongly encouraged to control the behaviour of students and aspects of the classroom program. This has lead to a sub-culture of teachers who truly believe they have the right to use their authority to demand students change to what they think are more desirable ways. The curious thing is that demanding ways overlook the natural repertoire of warm human behaviours that bring benefits to our students - a smile, a wink, a silly face, a nudge, a dare, a joke, a thumbs up, a kind or reassuring comment. Warm behaviours provide the scope for everyone to have a go and make mistakes without causing a catastrophe. They allow the word 'sorry' to be exchanged more freely and offer us a little more leverage to influence our students to find that elusive quality, self-motivation.

Teacher weariness, stress and burnout
Teaching has become much more than providing content for student learning. The upshot of expanding teacher roles and higher community and professional expectations has seen weariness, stress and burnout increase dramatically within the profession over the past three decades. The extreme demands and pressures which teachers confront is now widely recognised (Whitehead et al. 2000). Studies show that levels of stress among teachers continue to increase, and although the symptoms of burnout can be very personal, they are generally 'lack of' type symptoms. Lack of; energy, joy, enthusiasm, satisfaction, motivation, interest, zest dreams for life and so on.

If you have been on the 'battle front' for a long time it's natural to feel a little 'world weary'. Occasionally each of us needs to come up for air and reflect on why we continue to teach, what we have to offer, and what we want from our teaching. To be honest, unless we know the depth of our personal resilience, the influence we are able to exert in promoting positive connections with students is likely to be intermittent at best.

In the absence of winning lotto, significant pay rises, increased praise, greater recognition or additional support staff 10 sensible ways to reduce stress and ensure a more balanced edge to your life are presented.

The pendulum has swung
Despite pockets of resistance, it is becoming 'professionally savvy' to embrace the emotional and social connectedness of students, alongside expert curriculum delivery (Arnold, 2005). After all, teaching is a deeply human activity, and working with the emotions is the one sure thing that will help us to provide an achievable inclusive classroom.

Research into how people find success, in particular Raskin's 20 year study, has consistently highlighted the need for educators to incorporate opportunities for students to learn how to develop a set of personal qualities and attitudes, loosely termed the 'success attributes'. The success attributes concern an individual's self-awareness, their ability to goal set, to persevere, to find emotional stability and gain access from support systems. As students are guided to understand themselves, dynamic links between their feelings, thinking and behaviour provide a framework to raise their learning and optimism. The focus remains on buoyancy, transformation and change.

Ideas to develop the 'Success Attributes'
Ideas that embrace the 'success attributes' are taken from the presenter's book, Cognitive Behavioural Training: A How-to Guide for Successful Behaviour (ISBN: 1741013070). Moorabbin, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education.

The promotion self-awareness

  • Ask your student, 'Do you see a difficulty in the classroom or at home?'
  • Graph your personality. Got any bulges?
  • The Tough Stuff questionnaire... conversation offers valuable insights
    sample questionnaires worksheets

  • Which window do you look through?
  • Locate students' islands of competence
  • Balancing strengths/challenges
    sample balancing strengths/challenges worksheets

  • Exercise your brain by playing.... 'What if I did this? What might happen?
  • Ask, Is what you're doing working for you?
  • As students learn how their brains work, they learn is possible to 'rewire' and compensate for their innate 'wiring'.
    sample learning to rewire worksheets

Ideas to goal set
  • A good beginning may be as simple as asking a student, "What do you want?"
    sample worksheets

  • Visual tracking ideas help students stay excited about their goal
    sample goal setting worksheets

  • Borrow from the future
  • Encourage a student, or your class, to write an end of semester report they would like in the future. This is an engaging and energising activity!
  • Self-talk and the inner critic - metacognitive instruction
    sample worksheets sample worksheets

Improving perseverance
  • A universal student-monitoring system
    sample worksheets

  • Invite success nominations
  • Set up a self-monitoring plan
    sample worksheets

Strengthening emotional stability
  • Similarities and differences: Graphs are a powerful visual means to highlight diversity
    sample worksheets

  • Dream up a force-field
  • Use a 'think strip' or a 'bead band' to buy time
  • Cool-down or meltdown cards
    sample worksheets

  • Dealing with overwhelmed feelings and hyperactivity
  • Formal social-skill training
  • Informal social-skill training (see Formal social-skill training programs below)
    sample worksheets

  • Never underestimate your moral support; a child battling a learning difficulty is hard work for families (see PARENTING TOUGH KIDS below)
  • Mentoring (see Menotoring below)
    sample worksheets

Formal social-skill training programs
Sometimes children and teens benefit from attending a social-skill training program where they are explicitly taught how to solve social problems and behave in pro-social ways.

STOP THINK DO Program(tm)

Friends For Life Program(tm)

The Resourceful Adolescent Program(tm)

Cool Kids Program(tm)

McGrath's & Noble's Bounce Back Resiliency programs(tm)

Rock & Water Program(tm)

Informal friendship opportunities
Sometimes, the best chances for friendship takes place outside of school. When this occurs the emotional balance is tipped in an individual's favour as they find acceptance. Parents often look towards organisations such as; Cubs, Scouts, Guides, Computer groups, Collecting groups, Knitting Club, Radio Controlled Car Clubs, Ten Pin Bowling Clubs, Youth Group, Guinea Pig Clubs and so on.

At the heart of Mark's new book is a healthy collection of winning ways to bring about helpful organisational and behavioural changes for all children, including those who 'do it tough'; who learn differently, react differently and think they can't. The book is called Parenting Tough Kids (ISBN: 9780975231210).

Filled with real case studies and real ideas, useful to every mum and dad, this refreshing approach delivers simple proven ideas to steer child towards effective ways to:

  • improve memory and organisation
  • deal with anger
  • build better before school and after school routines
  • get homework and chores done more easily
  • Keep to a bedtime, stay in bed and get to sleep
  • create friendships and deal with school bullies
  • build their emotional resilience
A mentoring program may take the form of a 1:1 (teacher to student) encouragement program for students from lower primary to upper secondary school. Alternatively, mentoring systems often see an older buddy becoming a sounding board and a source of information concerning worries, problems and 'wins' for younger students.

Start quote Strong, supportive, mentoring relationships between adults and children at risk for social and academic failure have been associated with improvements in academic performance, school attendance and self-image. End quote
(Glomb, et al. 2006)

Helpful support systems

  • Student access cards (see Special Provisions below)
  • Assist students to learn about their LD entitlements
  • Invite guest speakers
  • Unite students with LD's; create a student advisory group to give input into 'special provisions policy'
  • Use a variety of ways for students to absorb and respond to information
  • Reviewing assignments prior to the hand-in date. Teachers who encourage students with learning difficulties to hand up and discuss assignments prior to the formal hand-in date provide their students with another helpful way to find academic success.
  • Explore new assistive technologies (see Websites with great ideas on assistive technology below)
  • Structures to assist students to deal with organisation and planning
    sample worksheets

  • Visual prompts to jog memory; class-monitor systems, timetables, rosters, lists and schedules
    sample worksheets

'Special provisions' allow students to work closer to their intellectual potential. An 'Access card' alerts busy teachers to a students learning entitlements. For a student with dyslexia, the access card is likely to state:
  • Handouts to be provided in place of having to copy extensive notes.
  • Diary entries to be sensitively supervised.
  • Extra time in tests & examinations permitted.
  • Allow the use of computer in lessons, tests & exams.
  • A reader and/or a scribe to be arranged in tests & examinations.
  • The use of a calculator to be encouraged.
  • Written work to be marked sensitively in relation to spelling & grammatical conventions.
sample student access card

Having a student access card in place is reassuring to students, just in case a teacher forgets.

Websites with great ideas on assistive technology:

Rounding up

From the outset, my intention was to convince you that the promotion of positive connections with students completely hinges on each of our attitudes. Setting up for success is more than being motivating, it is consciously constructing pathways for students to feel connected and engaged in their learning.

To complete the journey, take a moment to reflect on your own school days. Can you recall the teacher who had a profoundly positive influence on you? What did they say or do? How did they gradually build your belief in yourself? It's healthy, as educators and parents, to revisit what made a difference to us all those years ago. In all probability the teacher that made the most difference for you was the teacher who made a connection with you; who built your confidence, encouraged your persistence and excited your curiosity. It was likely a teacher who placed an emphasis on connectedness and relationship.

Our challenge is to take the same step. To transfer the research findings, our intuition and our experience into effective school and classroom practices. Structuring processes to sustain successful ways are important for all students, and more so for students with learning and motivational difficulties. Inclusion is truly attitudinal. It is far more than another new book title, a program, a promise, a policy or funding.


Arnold, R. (2005). Empathic Intelligence: teaching, learning, relating. Sydney University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Brock, A. & Schute, R. (2001). Group Coping Skills Program for Parents of Children with Dyslexia and other Learning Disabilities. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 6, no 4, 15-25.

Burrows, L. (2004). Compassionate communication with Parents of Children and Young People with Learning Disabilities. Australian Journal of learning Disabilities. Vol 9, no 4, December, 2004.

Elias, M. (2003). Educational Practices Series 11: Academic and social-emotional learning. Brussels: International Academy of Education.

Gerber, P. J., Ginsberg, R. & Reiff, H. B. (1992). Identifying alterable patterns in employment success for highly successful adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 475-487.

Gottesman, R. L. (1979). Follow up of learning disabled children. Learning Disability Quarterly, 2, 60-69.

Hoffman, F. J., Sheldon, K. L., Minskoff, E. H., Sautter, S. W., Steidle, E. F., Baker, D. P., Bailey, M. B. & Echols, L. D. (1987). Needs of learning disabled adults. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20, 43-52.

Johnson, D. J. & Blalock, J. W. (eds) (1987). Adults with learning disabilities: Clinical studies. New York: Grune & Stratton.

Kavale, K. A. (1988). The long term consequences of learning disabilities. In M. C. Wang, M. C. Reynolds & H. J. Walberg (eds), Handbook of special education: Research and practice. Tarrytown, New York: Pergamon, 303-344.

Mc Laughlin, C. (2003) The feeling of finding out: the role of emotions in research. University of Cambridge, United Kingdom Educational Action Research, Volume 11, No. 1.

Mischel, M. the 'marshmallow' study,

Raskind, M, Goldberg, R, Higgins, E. & Herman, K. (2002). Teaching 'life success' to students with LD: Lessons learned from a twenty year study. Intervention In School and Clinic, 37(4), March, 201-208.

Reiff, H, Gerber, P. & Ginsberg, R. (1997). Exceeding expectations: Successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed Inc.

Thorsborne, M. & Vinegrad, D Restorative Practices in Schools - Thinking Behaviour Management. Available from

Thomas, A. & Pashley, B. (1982). Effects of classroom training on Learning Difficulty students' task persistence and attributions. Learning Disability Quarterly, 5(2), 133-144.

Trent & Slade, Declining Rates of Achievement and Retention: the perceptions of adolescent males, Retrieved Nov, 2006 First Published June, 2001).

Weare, K. (2000). Promoting Mental, Emotional and Social Health: a whole school approach. London: Routledge.

Weiner, L. Challenging Deficit Thinking. Educational Leadership, vol. 64 no. 1 p42-45 Sept. 2006.

Whitehead, A., Ryba, K. & O'Driscoll, M. Burnout among New Zealand primary school teachers. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, December 2000.

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