8 Tips For Non-Manipulative Classroom Praise

“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines— rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions.” (Haim Ginott, 1965, p. 39)

Praise Research 

Praise researchers have set up various camps for decades. Some maintain that praise encourages student behavior and motivation, advising teachers to “reward the student with verbal reinforcement when she or he exhibits desired behavior” (Dev, 1997, p 16). 

Others believe that it can damage motivation–and in some cases, even become downright manipulative. Alfie Kohn contends that praise “leads [students] to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval” (5 Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job).  They argue that “Praise can create excessive pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce perceived autonomy.” (Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M.R. “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis,” p. 776).

Despite these opposing camps, still other researchers examine specific variables of praise that can impact students’ intrinsic motivation both beneficially and detrimentally. In their comprehensive praise review, Henderlong and Lepper conclude, “rather than asking whether praise enhances intrinsic motivation, it is far more useful to ask about the conditions under which this is likely to occur” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Some of those conditions include:

  • Sincerity: honest and specific evaluation
  • Performance Attributions: focusing on controllable processes vs. student ability/overly simple tasks
  • Perceived Autonomy: focusing on students’ autonomy vs. our control (finding, in fact, that no praise has a better effect than controlling praise)
  • Competence and Self-Efficacy: focusing on information on performance vs. social comparison
  • Standards & Expectations: focusing on specific praise on appropriately-challenging tasks vs. praise for too-easy or too-difficult tasks

8 Tips

Be mindful of the growth-mindset

Never praise students for what they are right now. Elevate your sights to the vision of where their efforts can take them; if your praise focuses merely on their current abilities, they will be less likely to view that potential for growth in themselves.

“I could tell you worked so hard to figure out that math problem. Way to stick with it even when it was tricky!” instead of “You’re so good at math!”

Be descriptive

Vague statements like “good job” can undermine student motivation because it does not offer concrete support for a student’s effort, nor does it recognize their personal reasons for pursuing the task. On the other hand, a detailed description becomes more useful feedback.

“Nice–when you made eye contact and responded constructively to your group members during that activity, it showed them respect and helped your whole group have a good discussion.” instead of “Good group discussion!”

Make the positive reinforcement more of an observation than explicit praise.

Set the tone of optimism by noticing the good more often than the bad. This helps create a positive atmosphere not only because students know you’re not going to harp on every error, but also because they’ll tend to pay more attention to the good things happening around them, too.

“I notice that Carlos is stacking everyone else’s chairs for them.” 

Connect the praise to genuine principles of respectful relationships.

Really, everything else hinges on this one. As Henderlong and Lepper concluded, “…provided that it is perceived as sincere, praise is likely to enhance intrinsic motivation when attributional messages prevent maladaptive inferences, when autonomy is promoted, when perceived competence and self-efficacy are heightened without undue use of social comparison, and when realistic standards and expectations are conveyed” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Nothing else will quite matter if your students sense ulterior motives.

“Wow, when Becca turned her chair around when I was sharing instructions, I could tell she was offering not just her attention, but her respect for my time, because her body language showed it. I really appreciate that.”

Genuinely thank students for their efforts to create a supportive classroom environment

They should know that you understand that it’s not easy to bring 25+ people together in a cooperative, positive, and safe learning environment every day. Give them the tools to help by verbalizing the kinds of choices that support learning.  Express your appreciation for those efforts frequently, reminding them that we’re all in this together!

“When Johnny was sharing his story, I saw Ashley put down her papers and look up at him. It’s not easy for anyone to get up and share, so thank you for helping Johnny feel more comfortable with sharing with such an attentive and respectful audience!” 

Don’t just use positive reinforcement as a misbehavior redirect

Notice and point out times when the entire class is pitching in to help the classroom run smoothly, and explain the difference you can feel–and ask them if they can feel it, too!

“During that transition, everyone put away the math cubes and moved back to their desks for wrap up immediately! I love that we have plenty of time to discuss our math noticings now–thank you for helping our class run smoothly!” 

Notice everyone

Seriously. Use a class list on a clipboard and tally off names if you need to. Otherwise, you and your students both know you’re going to wind up primarily noticing the same 5 line-of-sight people every day.

Get rid of tangible extrinsic rewards that often accompany praise

These devalue the positive attention given because students are less likely to internalize the value of the behavior or task for its own sake.  Keep close tabs on your extrinsic rewards in general, and always be willing to ask yourself the tough questions.

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What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order

“Wait–what?!” That was pretty much the universal response from when I first suggested the idea. But after teaching U.S. history in relentlessly chronological order for a couple of years, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way. Wouldn’t teaching all the wars in one unit help them better comprehend the nature and cause/effect of war?  Could teaching about the evolution of governing documents–from the Magna Carta to the 27th U.S. Constitutional Amendment–help students better understand the processes of government? And is chronological order really necessary for students to get a clear picture our country’s past–and more importantly, is it the best way to help them apply it to their present and future?

Back to the Drawing Board

So in my third year of teaching fifth grade, our grade level team decided to take a leap and rework our social studies approach. The priority shifted from individual facts and dates to overarching concepts.

As an IB school, 6 units of inquiry were already in place; we revisited the central idea for each one and considered historical concepts that would relate to each other. Below were the results:

  • Unit: Who We are
    • Central Idea: Understanding the similarities & differences of the human experience helps us explain shared humanity.
    • History concepts included: Rights movements (slavery, civil rights, women’s suffrage, child labor, etc.)
  • Unit: Where we are in place & time
    • Central Idea: The evolution of civilizations stems from human relationships & personal journeys.
    • History concepts included: Westward expansion, Industrial Revolution, Great Depression migration
  • Unit: How the world works
    • Central Idea: Scientific discoveries increase humans’ ability to expand.
    • History concepts included: Pivotal inventions that led to the exploration, formation, and expansion of the U.S.
  • Unit: How we organize ourselves
    • Central Idea: Order drives the systems of our world.
    • History concepts included: Study of governing documents, 3 branches of U.S. government
  • Unit: Sharing the planet
    • Central Idea: The world evolves due to the cause and effect of changes.
    • History concepts included: Study of U.S. wars
  • Unit: How we express ourselves (this is the fifth graders’ self-directed exhibition unit at our school)

Unknown Waters

Throughout the implementation process, I remember actively discussing the new approach with my students–I wanted them to know that I did not know how it would work, and that we were seeking answers together. And answers they found! A couple months in, one suggested that we post a timeline in the corner of our classroom, adding dates and pictures of important events as we explored them to help us all put things in context.  Others exclaimed when they realized that we used to teach each war often months apart, instead of studying them side-by-side.

By the end of the year, my students possessed unprecedented historical comprehension. They didn’t just know the names and dates of important wars; they understood the cause-and-effect within and between each one.  They didn’t just memorize the names of the three branches of government; they understood that governing documents and systems are a work in progress in which we all must participate. They didn’t just watch a couple videos about human rights movements; they made in-depth connections about the human experience and our treatment of one another. For our class, the question of teaching history by concept became a resounding YES.

Final Take-Away

It’s important to note that my most valuable learning from this experience did not come from watching my students flourish in concept-driven history (though that was indeed rewarding!). Rather, it was the realization that we must never stop questioning our practices.  Look among the dustiest and most longstanding ones and simply ask yourself why–and remember to take your students on the journey with you!

If you’re interested in other ways to challenge the status quo, check out our post, “What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program (Mountain Math/Language.”

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3 Simple #EdLeadership Opportunities with Big Impact

Thanks to 21st century resources, long-gone are the days when teachers had to wait around for admin-organized professional development and growing opportunities.  And becoming a real leader in the education world is simpler than you might think. Here are 3 ways you can make a big difference without carving out too much of your limited time!

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What If Not All Students Want Choice?

“But there isn’t though enough sharing by those who are embedded in the work [of 21st century learning]. There isn’t enough shared deep reflection, video, or examples of what the how looks like in action. But we can fix that, right?” ~Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.

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5 Business-Inspired Tips for Progressive Classroom Management

You’ve probably noticed that approaches to education and business tend to clash.  After all, we spend about 13 years training students to memorize and then produce results in bubble sheets (which tends to untrain them from their natural tenacity, creativity, and passion), and then we suddenly hope they’ll be innovative and creative leaders once they join our workforce.  One way to help beat this paradox: find applications for improved educational practices among the advice columns in the business world.  Below are just a few examples.

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The Universal & Essential Action Cycle

Beginning to teach at an International Baccalaureate school can be an intimidating experience.  Terminology alone, from “transdisciplinary skills” to “line of inquiry,” can be difficult to understand and incorporate into teaching, especially if you have a background that emphasizes direct instruction.  However, becoming familiar with the Action Cycle, or learning cycle, can help ease that transition–whether you’re a new IB teacher and or are simply interested in cultivating a more inquiry-based, student-driven classroom.

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Praising Students from Kindergarten to 12th Grade

“Rosa has lined up so respectfully for recess.”  “Wow, Ethan is managing his time so well by checking the instructions.” “Check out how Candice has taken the time to carefully revise her piece before publishing.”  Here are 13 reasons–one per grade–to make positive praise one of your most valuable teaching tools.


Kindergarten: Motivate students by attaching their names to something positive.

Don’t we all hope for a little validation for our hard work?  School is a full-time job for students, too, and even your kindergarteners value recognition for their efforts.  “I see Kate waiting her turn to get a drink at the fountain,” goes a long way for a five year-old working on patience.

1st Grade: Highlight those who make appropriate choices.

This is not to be confused with grooming a flock of “teacher’s pets,” especially since that usually involves recognizing a select few.  Teachers should make it a priority to frequently catch all their first graders making good choices.  “I notice David found a great place to read his book,” conveys to the rest of the class what you value.

Helpful starting tip: use a blank class list to actually tally your positive feedback.  Not only will this help you develop awareness of how frequently you praise certain students, it will also help you notice how frequently you issue praise in general.

2nd Grade: Eradicate the common habit of focusing on those making inappropriate choices.

Since mischievous 2nd graders tend to stand out, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Next time you notice an off-task student, instead of going straight for direct reprimands, try praising a student within his or her proximity who is following instructions.  “I appreciate how respectfully John is raising his hand to share his ideas” gives effective feedback both to John and to a classmate who has shouted out, while placing the positive attention on the student making better choices.

Note: We absolutely believe that constructive criticism has its place; however, we contend it should be a secondary strategy–not your primary one.

3rd Grade: Teach students about the balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Perhaps you have set up some kind of extrinsic motivation system in your classroom, such as earning classroom “money” for positive behavior.  Especially when used intermittently, this can be a valuable classroom tool.  However, imagine a statement such as, “I’m impressed that Johnny didn’t even need to earn a bonus to push in his chair.  He has become a responsible enough 3rd grader that he knows how to take care of our classroom without any extra reward.”  There is clear potential there for shaping a student’s desire for self-development, rather than always depending on tangible rewards.

4th Grade: Reinforce your instructions.

It’s exhausting to repeat yourself to inattentive students. Instead, picture this scenario.  As you discuss with your 4th graders the procedure for your latest science inquiry experiment, you jot each step on the whiteboard.  Then, as soon as students begin, flood the transition with simple, out-loud observations of those double-checking those procedures, such as “I see Kalli quickly gathering her supplies as we discussed for step 1,” or “Paul is double-checking step 3 on the board before he proceeds.”

The point: Proper instructions get reinforced, you don’t feel like a nag, and students who follow instructions get some recognition.  Win-win-win.

5th Grade: Reinforce your expectations.

As your fifth graders have generally become quite familiar with one another through their primary years, they often become quite social–which adds both liveliness and challenges to your classroom management approach.  Proactively reinforcing the appropriate times and contexts for socializing may keep the school year running more smoothly.  Some examples of this kind of feedback: “I see Marta respectfully listening to her group member, waiting to contribute her ideas until it’s her turn” or “Joseph wisely chose not to stand by his best buddies in line so he won’t be tempted to chat as we walk down the halls to lunch.”

Chris Suderman
Chris Suderman
6th Grade: Encourage specific growth.

Each year, my feedback tends to center around one idea or theme.  Some have included:

  • Make life easier for others.
  • Say no to distractions. (Inspired by Steve Jobs quote.)
  • You may solve your problems in ways that aren’t problematic for yourself or others.

These themes arose from the opportunities for growth I observed in each class collectively, and I voiced them every single day through my specific positive praise.  “Nancy made Jim’s life easier by stacking his chair when she saw he was busy at the end of the day.” “Robert is saying no to distractions by putting away his pencil during instructions.”  “Cindy solved her problem of losing her permission slip by making a new one for her parents to sign.”  My fifth graders became so familiar with it that they started using similar language in their own conversations.  Daily illustrating what it looked, felt, and sounded like through positive praise had a much more lasting impact than an individual lesson might have had.

7th Grade: Give reminders to off-task students without confrontation.

By 7th grade, most students “catch on,” often manifested by eye-rolling.  A strategy that involves reminding students of appropriate behavior without direct confrontation may be the very tool you need that will preempt power struggles throughout the year.

8th Grade: Build rapport with students.

By 8th grade, overt teacher praise is often officially “uncool.” Depending on the student, you may actually push away certain students if they feel overly recognized.  But as you gear your positive praise toward a more one-on-one level, it can still have a powerful role in building your relationships with students as they sense you respect them as mature young adults.  For instance, you may pull aside a student for this kind of feedback: “I could tell you dedicated some thoughtful reflection in your essay; I have other students that don’t yet understand what that kind of serious reflecting looks like, so I was wondering if you’d mind my sharing it with the class?  I can keep your name anonymous if you would prefer.”

9th Grade: Align your practices with research.

At Purdue University, the Department of Child Development and Family Studies discussed John Gottman’s positive to negative feedback ratio.  According to his research, marriage relationships thrive when that ratio is balanced at 5:1.¹  This research is reinforced in the classroom by numerous additional studies which find that “the use of contingent, behavior-specific praise has been linked to positive student outcomes, including increased student academic engagement and decreased disruptive behavior.”²  We simply must have a greater number of positive interactions with our students than negative.

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10th Grade: Let the modeling of quality thinking and choices come from students’ peers.

21st Century learning and teaching is defined by a technology-facilitated shift: from teachers as sources of knowledge, to guides who coach students to assess and evaluate the knowledge now at all our fingertips.  Embrace this shift by allowing student peers’ work to be the model wherever possible.  Supporting the philosophy that quality ideas can come from anyone–instead of just one wisened individual–is both empowering and realistic in this modern age of collaboration.  For example: “Check out how Lucas is approaching this algorithm.  How can that strategy be helpful for some individuals?”

11th Grade: Encourage students to make better use of their resources.

Let’s say you put some dictionaries in your classroom (or the link to dictionary.com on your class blog homepage), hoping that will help eradicate spelling errors.  Maybe you even give your students a mini-lesson on how to look up words in the dictionary for spelling aid.  However, none of your best efforts will encourage students to utilize that resource as well as praising a student who does so.

12th Grade: Cultivate a growth mindset.

The way we praise students has a greater impact on their development than we may realize.  A motivation researcher at Stanford, Carol Dweck, has addressed the terms, fixed mindset and growth mindset.³  Students who receive praise that focuses on innate ability (“You got 100%–you’re so smart at math!”) develop a fixed mindset–instilling perfectionism, fear of failure, and belief that ability is static.  When the praise centers around effort (“You got 100%–you must have worked so hard!”), students develop a growth mindset–leading to courage, perseverance, and belief that ability is malleable.  See an inspiring video on this subject by Khan Academy below.

Sources:
  1. Poulson, Shruti S. (March 2008). A Fine Balance: The Magic Ratio to a Healthy Relationship. Purdue Extension, CFS-744-W. Retrieved from https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/CFS/CFS-744-W.pdf.
  2. Rodriguez, Billie J. and Sprick, Randy. Why a Positive Approach to Behavior? A Research Summary. Randy Sprick’s Safe and Civil Schools. Retrieved from http://www.safeandcivilschools.com/research/references/positive-approach-to-behavior.pdf.
  3. Dweck, Carol S. (January 2010). Mind-Sets and Equitable Education. Principal Leadership. Retrieved from  https://www.nassp.org/portals/0/content/61209.pdf.
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