Study: Teacher Praise Improves Classroom Behavior in Elementary School
When a teacher’s praise-to-reprimand ratio increases, so too does the likelihood that his or her students will stay on task and exhibit positive classroom behaviors, according to a new study of children aged 5 to 12, a percentage of whom were classified as special education.
February 5, 2020
Elementary school students who receive more teacher praise than reprimands focus up to 20 to 30 percent more in the classroom, according to a new study published in Educational Psychology. The research findings indicate that any increase of praise will improve on-task behavior in elementary school classrooms, and researchers urge teachers to consider using praise as an effective classroom management strategy.1
This study investigated the relationship between a teacher’s praise-to-reprimand ratio (PPR) and on-task behavior among his or her students. Researchers, led by Dr. Paul Caldarella from the David O. McKay School of Education at BYU, posed two main questions: Does a teacher’s PPR predict his or her students’ on-task behavior? Could a particular PPR improve and optimize a student’s classroom behavior?
To investigate these questions, researchers gathered data over three years as part of a multi-site, randomized control efficacy trial of CW-FIT (Class-Wide Function-related Intervention Teams). Half of the classrooms studied implemented CW-FIT, which is a proactive classroom management intervention that focuses on addressing common problem behaviors by teaching social expectations and emphasizing praise and rewards for positive behavior. The other half were control groups, and teachers relied on their original classroom management strategies for the duration of the study.1
This study’s population is particularly large. The study spanned three states (Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah) and 151 elementary classrooms — 7% of which were special education classrooms. In total, 2,536 students between the ages of 5-12 participated. This group included students with individualized education plans (IEPs) and students identified as English as a Second Language (ESL). Researchers and their trained aids observed the classrooms during a wide range of activities and topics from math to language arts.1
“Praise” was defined as a verbal indication of approval following a student’s behavior. Praise excluded vague statements, such as a simple ‘thanks,’ and went beyond acknowledging a correct response. “Reprimands” were defined as verbal disapproval, such as a threat or scolding, as a response to inappropriate behavior. Vague negative statements and teachers silently waiting for their class to become quiet were not counted as reprimands.1
Researchers quantified teacher feedback using frequency counts during the 20-minute observation sessions. Additionally, they gathered data about classroom on-task behavior using momentary time sampling at 30-second intervals during the observation sessions. Observers were trained to identify on-task behavior and off-task behavior with quizzes, videos, and through real-life training sessions until their observation and calculation ability reached 90% accuracy.1
This study did not identify a conclusive PRR threshold, or ‘tipping point’, at which student’s classroom behavior drastically improves. Rather, researchers found a consistent, positive linear relationship linking higher teacher PRR to stronger on-task behavior among students. Results suggest that even increasing PRR to 1:1 will improve on-task behaviors.1
Though this study is a strong addition to educational literature about praise, future studies should include more diverse groups: teachers were predominantly white/Caucasian women.1 Moreover, less than 5% of classrooms observed were teaching science or social studies.1 What’s more, no specific analysis of students with and without ADHD was performed; further research on the impact of praise on students with ADHD is warranted.
This study adds specificity to past research on this topic, and its results are promising: any increase of praise could improve classroom behavior.1 A praise-based classroom management technique could be a universal tool because the benefits apply to all students.2
What’s more, these findings seem to confirm the theory of recognition responsive euphoria as presented by Edward Hallowell, M.D. and John Ratey, M.D. in the ADDitude webinar, “The Flip Side of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: How to Tap into ADHD Energy and Motivation.” In this webinar, Ratey and Hallowell discuss recognition responsive euphoria as the flip side to rejection sensitive dysphoria — proposing that individuals with ADHD thrive with perceived recognition.
Thus, the final takeaway for educators and supporters of people with ADHD from this report and webinar coincide: “Do not wait to praise perfection because perfection may never happen without praise along the way,” as Hallowell and Ratey said.
In an interview about this study, Dr. Neha Chaudhary, cofounder of Stanford’s Lab for Mental Health Innovation, Brainstorm, underscored the study’s significance by saying, “Anyone in a caregiving role should be thinking about [using praise over punishment] day-to-day — from parents to coaches to after-school mentors to pediatricians.”2 (Dr. Chaudhary was uninvolved with this study and is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School2)
Often, praise is used less and less as students get older, and researchers observed relatively low rates of praise in the classrooms they studied. This study suggests that praise is an important and underutilized tool for increasing elementary students’ engagement.1
1Paul Caldarella, Ross A. A. Larsen, Leslie Williams, Kade R. Downs, Howard P. Wills & Joseph H. Wehby (2020) Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behaviour, Educational Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2020.1711872
2Sidhu, M., Dr. (2020, January 29). Teacher’s praise helps students focus more than punishment, study finds. Retrieved February 04, 2020, from https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/family/story/teachers-praise-helps-students-focus-punishment-study-finds-68600014