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The Power of Unconditional Positive Regard

I was first introduced to the formal concept of Genuine or Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) in my undergraduate program as I studied child development and psychology. The concept was coined by Carl Rogers (1902-1987), a humanistic psychologist. Rogers held that receiving positive regard led to the development of high self-worth and positive self-concept; a child who had positive feelings about themselves and confidence to negotiate challenges in life. Unconditional Positive Regard involves acknowledging, accepting, valuing and loving someone for who they are. It is unconditional because the positive regard is not withheld when the person makes a mistake or does something wrong. This is juxtaposed to Conditional Positive Regard, where a person is accepted, valued, receiving approval only when they are acting in a desired manner or exhibiting desired traits.

I understood the concept of UPR immediately and deeply based on life experience. Most of us have experienced Conditional Positive Regard–being accepted and valued as long as we meet the qualifications of the person doing the evaluation. With conditional positive regard, we understand that it will only last as long as we continue to meet the qualifications. It is hard to feel relaxed, learn and grow when acceptance hangs in the balance. Hopefully everyone has the experience of being truly loved and accepted by others; seen, heard, acknowledged, treasured for our unique personality and the gifts we bring to this life, even when we are not being our best selves. That UPR is important to our ability to trust, learn, grow, trust, know that we are supported as we do.

Unconditional or Genuine Positive Regard does not mean that we approve of the actions someone takes, nor put up with harmful or disruptive behaviors. It does mean that we separate the deed from the doer; we can address the behaviors or actions while maintaining our appreciation for the person, valuing them at their core. This concept is at the heart of Restorative Practice; we value each individual and seek to support them in their growth, learning from mistakes, repairing harms and restoring relationship.

Schools are notorious for being places where conditional positive regard reigns. Students are favored because of how they behave or the skills they exhibit, and poor behavior or low skills result in approval withdrawn or never granted by the teacher or school staff. The students who struggle the most with behaviors and learning lose their reason to try when they believe that they are not liked or valued by staff. In fact, conditional positive regard often sets in motion spirals of negative behavior, negative self-concept and low self-worth. In my work as a teacher, counselor and principal I have seen the power of Unconditional, Genuine Positive Regard completely turn a child’s life around.

How do we access and apply genuine unconditional positive regard? For me, it is an attitude; greeting each student with an open heart, eager to see their unique beauty and the gifts they bring to the world; honoring them as part of creation, here as part of the greater whole. Look for the goodness, the spark; delight in them. Communicate how glad we are to have them as a student, how we look forward to getting to know them and learning together. Remember that we are learning and growing too, and each student teaches us something about ourselves and our practice. Cultivate a spirit of generosity.

  • Connect—develop Relationship—get to know your students through collaborative activities, play, conversation, being available. Allow them to get to know you too.
  • See them, hear them, acknowledge them.
  • Look for their strengths and acknowledge them.
  • Learn their interests; find ways to incorporate these to enhance engagement.
  • Discover their talents and provide opportunities for them to shine.
  • Understand their challenges and approach them in a way that maintains student dignity and agency.
  • Adopt a growth mindset for everyone—including yourself.
  • Have empathy and compassion.
  • Believe in them.
  • Have fun with them—seek opportunities to share joy.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate growth and accomplishment.
  • Facilitate relationships among your students to reflect these skills, mindsets and behaviors throughout the class.

Genuine positive regard is healthy; we could consider it part of self-care. When I am holding genuine positive regard, wholeheartedly embracing each student, completely authentic in my “universal love” and appreciation for each student, I feel so good! Delight and joy are energizing, and the positivity helps carry me though my day. There is no comparison to the burden of harboring annoyance, dislike or disapproval. Will problematic behaviors or situations still occur? Sure! Our students are learning. They are perfectly imperfect just like we are. In my experience, as students relax into the atmosphere of genuine positive regard and trust in their relationship with us, they blossom and become ever more their best selves. As we do the same.

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