HOW TO ENCOURAGE SOMEONE: 3 Tips that Worked for Me

For one year, I taught fifth grade. And one child stole my heart: Alex. As a fifth grader, Alex’s grades never exceeded a “D” or “F.” He was a consistent discipline problem; however, Alex had a sweet temperament and high energy, albeit a somewhat forlorn disposition.

Alex was not a “bad kid,” but he was a failing one.

The Right-Away First Conference

The first parent-teacher conference was scheduled soon after the school year was in progress. Before things got worse, it was time to address Alex’s failure to turn in his assignments. He also had to quit talking and disrupting class.

every-accomplishment-tryTo the Principal’s Office, We Go

Alex and I solemnly made our way to the principal’s office where Alex’s mom and the principal were waiting. After I reported the problems, Alex’s mother scolded him. I got the feeling she had been through this many times.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed she swayed in her chair and she had her glassy eyes.

As she scolded Alex, she slurred, blurted, slurred, blurted, “Alex, you better do what the teacher says or you will end up in prison just like your brothers.”

A Young Teacher–Very Naive, Mad, and Determined

how can i helpIn a stunned moment, I was face-to-face with my naiveté. Alex’s mother was obviously in orbit somewhere above the principal’s office. Alex’s tears wet his entire cheeks and through his sniffles and sobs, he promised to do better next time.

All I felt was sick to my stomach. I saw a normally animated, bright-eyed kid dissolve into a pitiful, pleading little boy, trying so hard to please—but totally and completely without the resources to do any better.

I left that office mad and determined. Alex couldn’t help Alex. Alex’s mother couldn’t help Alex. The principal couldn’t help Alex. So I would. I woke up in the middle of the night trying to figure out a strategy to help Alex.

I read books. I talked to other teachers. I offered to stay after school to tutor him. I tried everything, but only with marginal impact.

In my determined attempt to encourage someone dear to me, I pass on these 3 tips that worked for me.

1. Notice the Good. Catch the Person Doing Things Right

new mindset

Finally, the best-untutored approach I could concoct was simply to notice the “good.” This was harder than it sounded. Alex did twenty wrong things to every right thing. I really had to pay attention to Alex and the more I did so, the more I noticed him doing what he was not supposed to be doing.

In order to “catch him doing something good,” I had to ignore twenty bad things. If he was supposed to be doing homework quietly at his desk, he was noisily rearranging his books. If he was supposed to be getting ready for lunch and putting his books away, he was talking and teasing someone.

The Quick Translation

failinggradeWhen I graded his papers, he would score a 30%. Since 59% is an “F,” he wasn’t even close to a passing grade. As I stared at one more “F” paper, I wondered, “How do I make something positive out of a low F?”

In a moment of inspiration, I wrote with my red pen: “Plus 7!” and then in big letters for effect, I wrote “7 Correct Answers! Good job, Alex.” This was opposed to the normal “-70 F.” Same thing, said differently. Then I tried another strategy to encourage him.

2. Tell Others About the Person’s Successes (And Make Sure He/She Knows You Told Them)


Finally, when I had enough “good things” collected, I wrote his mother a note and asked him to follow the standard practice: get her signature and bring it back to me. As many know, traditionally, notes sent home were never a good thing.

At the top of the note, I wrote: “You should be very proud of Alex. In the last two weeks, he has…and what followed was a long, very specific list of all the things Alex had done right in the last two weeks. I handed the folded note to Alex and watched him out of the corner of my eye, poised to celebrate my victory as soon as his face lit up.

My Brainstorm: The Note–Epic Failure?

possibleHe read the note with zero expression, simply folding the note back up, and stashing it in his pocket. I was crestfallen. All my hard work and attentiveness toward his good behavior had been for nothing. Unceremoniously, the next day he laid the folded note on my desk with his mother’s signature.

I was disappointed, but tried to act “normal.” We both acted as if nothing were different about this note than all the other notes he had taken home for a signature for years. I sighed to myself.

What? Epic Success!

Later that afternoon, one of the girls who walked home along Alex’s route approached me and told me that on the “note day” Alex didn’t walk home; rather, he jumped and shouted home, waving the note up and down. He made everyone along the way read it.

My heart leaped. I had gotten through after all.

3. Say It in Writing When You Encourage Someone

gratitude changes everything

There seems to be something special about the written word. I heard of one CEO who kept a Brag Folder on his desk of all the nice things people had said about him and his leadership. When he was feeling down and discouraged, he would take it out and review it. It always lifted his spirits.

After my grandmother died, I found a note I had written to her describing all the reasons I loved her.

Particularly in today’s world, send someone a short note today–encourage, praise, acknowledge, notice–send some love. You’ll make a difference in their life.

You can encourage someone by doing 3 things: 1) Notice the Good. Notice the person doing something right. 2) Tell Others About the Person’s Success. Frame things in the positive. 3) Say it in Writing. Write a note so the person has something tangible they can refer to again and again.

I heard a story about the CEO of Chick-fil-A. He asked someone, “How do you know when someone needs encouragement?” The other person shrugged their shoulders, not having an answer. Truett Cathy answered for him, “They are breathing.” I have never forgotten that. Every person, whether outwardly successful or failing, needs encouragement.

If you are breathing, you need encouragement. And so does the other person. Pay it forward.


(Using Knowledge You Already Have)

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