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A Simple "Switch" to Turn up Kids' Attention by 30 Percent

Praise, rather than reprimands, increases students' on-task behavior by 30%.

Wow, I love how Ari is sitting. I love how Brian is showing me with his body that he's interested in the lesson, and so are Hannah, Mark, and Olivia! Who else wants to show me that they are interested?

Recently published research demonstrates that children focus on tasks 20-30 percent more when teachers prioritize praise statements over reprimands. The research was conducted in 151 classrooms in 19 elementary schools across three states. A total of 2,536 students were included in the study.

The research was a randomized control efficacy trial of the intervention "CW-FIT." Classrooms were randomly selected as "control" classrooms or "experimental" classrooms. In the "control" classrooms, teachers were asked to teach and use their typical classroom management strategies.

What Do We Mean by "Praise?"

In the experimental classrooms, teachers were trained in CW-FIT. The key components of the intervention were:

1. Instructing students about expected social skills

2. Organizing group contingencies using a timer

3. Providing differential reinforcement, such as publicly awarded points and tangible rewards

4. Offering a second tier of supports for students who needed extra attention (such as prompts or self-management skills cards)

As part of the CW-FIT intervention, teachers are trained to utilize positive praise more frequently than they reprimand.

Observers were trained to code teachers' statements of positive praise and specific reprimands, such as general reprimands to the class—"We are not keeping our hands to ourselves"—or reprimands to a child—"Kevin, stop hitting." Vague reprimands, like "no" with no specific instructions, were not included. Similarly, frowning, "staring down" a child, or headshakes were not coded.

Positive praise includes statements such as: "Good job, Sarah, you're following directions, and you're getting on the line quietly." Vague positive statements, such as "good," and smiling were not coded.

Is Praise Dose-Specific?

In both experimental and control classrooms, researchers calculated a "praise to reprimand ratio" (PRR). For example, if a teacher praised a child three times and reprimand that child one time, the PRR value would be .75. In other words, 75 percent of the communication was praise.

Look for opportunities to praise and reduce reprimands to increase student focus and on-task behavior
Source: primagefactory/123RF

Interestingly, in both control and experimental classrooms, PRR was associated with greater task engagement. Children in classrooms with high PRR tended to focus 30 percent of the time more than children in classrooms with low PRR.

However, there does not seem to be a specific "tipping point" or ratio. We can't say "for every reprimand, there need to be five positive statements." There was no precise level of praise that was key. Rather, there was a generally linear relationship between increased praise and increased on-task behavior.

Duplicating These Findings:

We know that behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Specific praise is a quick reward that students can attend to. "Nice on-task behavior, Sarah," not only rewards Sarah, but it also indicates the expected behavior to the rest of the class.

In the current study, the teachers were using CW-FIT, which also provides tangible, concrete rewards to the students, aside from praise. When a student hears, "Nice job staying on task, John," he also knows that he is going to be rewarded, and this might increase his motivation to stay on task. In other words, praise is a primary reinforcer, but he will also be receiving a secondary reinforcer—points towards an individual or group reward.

However, even in classrooms without this type of formalized positive behavior support, specific, targeted praise increased task focus, suggesting that the praise alone has value.

Reprimands Are Ineffective:

In general, brains respond more easily to "do" statements than to "don't" statements. When we tell a child, "Don't do that," without providing a replacement behavior, we are asking a lot of the frontal lobes. We call this type of self-control "inhibition," and it's exhausting. When a teacher says, "Robert, stop biting your pencil," or "Alice, stop twisting in your seat," the teacher is depleting the brain's executive functioning. There's less self-control left for the rest of the lesson.

Inhibition Experiment:

Close your eyes and focus on the part of your body that feels uncomfortable. Maybe your nose is slightly itchy. Feel that itch; feel the urge to scratch it. Now, don't scratch. Go back to whatever you were doing, but don't scratch the itch.

What automatically happens? Your desire to scratch the itch immediately doubles.

If I say this:

Close your eyes and focus on the part of your body that feels uncomfortable. Maybe your nose is slightly itchy. Feel that itch; feel the urge to scratch it. Now, bring your attention back to reading this article. I want you to focus on this article, and think deeply about what you are learning, and how you can apply it to your life. Good job! I see you are really focusing your attention.

What happens? The itch diminishes.

Instead of focusing your attention on what "not" to do, which immediately brings that to awareness, I focused it on what you should be doing.

As a school consultant (and former classroom teacher), I ask teachers to raise their praise to reprimand ratio simply because the more you focus on a behavior, the more it increases. That's not to say that we ignore the disruptive or off-task student. We might need to create a specific intervention plan, such as a signal, to help get the more inattentive or disruptive student back on track.

When creating such a signal system, it's important to have the child know which replacement behavior you are asking for. Replace "Don't rip the paper" with "Put the paper in your folder." In general, any time we start a sentence with "Don't," we're asking for a costly level of self-control, and that will interfere with later on-task behavior. (For more about "costly" strategies for self-control, click here.)

It's also important to praise that disruptive student as soon as he does follow the signal. In classrooms I've observed, I've seen teachers use signals effectively, but skip the targeted praise. That's missing an opportunity to increase that student's concentration.

Overall, there's no precise tipping point or ratio for teachers to use. The more that praise is emphasized, and reprimands are doled out very judiciously, the more likely the students are to remain on task. Now, that's rewarding for everyone!

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020


Paul 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

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