A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life.
– John C. Maxwell
Many educators know that in order to get students to respond in a positive way, they must communicate from a position of positivity themselves. Positive reinforcement – in the form of genuine behavior-specific praise – can impact the classroom environment in numerous ways. In fact, it can prepare students for success in the long term, particularly those students who come from a disadvantaged background. The balance of praise to criticism typically works best when the scale is tipped toward encouragement.
Behavioral scientists have long studied the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio. For students, that ideal ratio is 4:1. In other words, for each bit of negative feedback, there should be a minimum of four positive comments to balance it out. Studies conducted by Vanderbilt University indicate that “Praise is a powerful tool for educators. When used effectively in the classroom, it can increase the social and academic performance of students, as well as improve classroom climate.”
The 4:1 ratio is a simple enough premise, but it comes with a caveat: praise needs to be specific. It’s not enough to simply tell a student, “well done,” and offer no context. Such praise is meaningless to the student, who may not understand why they are being praised. Offering a few specific details along with the praise provides the feedback necessary to help reinforce desired behaviors.
Consider, instead, the benefits of behavior-specific praise. Behavior-specific praise meets two criteria:
- The student behavior is observable (i.e., walking quietly in the hall)
- The one giving praise tells the student how this behavior affects them (i.e., “I feel” statements)
The result of this type of praise is often twofold: it reinforces desirable and appropriate student behavior as well as building positive teacher-student relationships.
What Does Behavior-Specific Praise Look Like?
When you take an observable behavior and pair it with a praise statement of how it affects you, you give a student positive feedback that helps to reinforce this behavior. When it comes to common schoolwide values such as being safe, responsible, and respectful, behavior-specific praise looks like this:
- “I feel proud when you helped me lead the class on a fire drill.” (Safe)
- “I am impressed by your perfect record of turning in all homework assignments.” (Responsible)
- “When you welcome me by name each morning, it makes me feel optimistic.” (Respectful)
- “When my substitute leaves a note that you helped them, I feel honored.” (Safe)
- “I feel proud when you contribute to group discussions.” (Responsible)
- “When you offer to pick up papers for your classmates and turn them in to me, I am impressed.” (Respectful)
Another crucial ingredient in behavior-specific praise is timeliness. The optimal moment to reinforce any behavior is the present, helping students to clearly see the results of their actions.
Other Benefits of Behavior-Specific Praise
Classroom management is often a moment-by-moment task. How you interact with your students can either help or hinder your efforts.
Behavior-specific praise can set the tone for your classroom and boost the relationships you have with your students. Additionally, behavior-specific praise:
- Increases instructional time
- Improves on-task behavior
- Improves academic outcomes
- Reduces ODRs
- Creates a positive classroom environment
- Builds student confidence
When you take the time to develop positive relationships through behavior-specific praise, classroom management becomes easier and students can achieve more. This simple but powerful approach to communication can completely change the dynamic of your classroom!