The Parameters of Praise


Let's face it, most of us benefit from different types of attention. 

Truth of the matter is, most kids are the same way. The caveat being the word "most." You cannot assume all children thrive off of attention. Children with trauma might actually find praise aversive and giving behavior specific praise might actually harm your relationship; this is why it is SO imporant to know your students. But, for the sake of this post, we are working under the assumption that praise may function as a reinforcer for many students. Research shows that praise given in a certain type of way increases appropriate behaviors and decreases inappropriate behaviors. So, how do you go about adjusting your praise to reap the benefits?

1. Gain the attention of the student 

You want to get the attention of the child first so you know they are attending. It is important to connect the praise to the behavior, and if they are tuning you out, why bother?

2. Describe the good behavior

You need to state the appropriate behavior that you are wanting to reinforce and see more of. For example, if Sally pushed in her chair you would say, "Wow, Sally! Thanks for pushing in your chair!" Be explicit in the exact behavior that the child engaged in so they know exactly what you are praising them for. General statements such as, "Good job" or "Nice work" don't tell the student what you are giving them attention for; you could very well be accidentally reinforcing them kicking their peer under the desk if you don't flat out stay what they are doing that you like. 

3. End with a positive label

It's important to tie the behavior to a quality that is related to independence. Since independence is the goal, how can this behavior relate to that? Maybe Sally pushing in her chair was 'responsible." You might say, "Jack, I liked the way you said "Excuse me," that was very respectful of you. Throwing a label on the behavior helps justify it's importance of it and how their behavior positively effects others around them. 

4. Reinforce effort, rather than ability

One important thing to keep in mind is that we should try to reinforce a child's effort, more than their ability. What this means is that I'm going to praise Leo's effort to complete his spelling test, rather than praising the fact that he got all of this spelling words correct. Praising achievement can sometimes foster an unhealthy drive and sense of perfectionism that can actually cause more anxiety for a child. If you praise effort, you are reinforcing the process and stamina that they are engaging in to get to the point of achievement. Make sense? Let's use a gym scenario - I may only be able to lift 15 pound dumbells compared to some other people, but I bust my butt to be able to lift this much. If you come over to me and gave me a high-five for working so hard, I would feel darn good. But if you said, "You should be able to lift 20 pounds by now," I may just drop the weight on your foot ;)

5. Praise immediately

I know, I know, it would be awesome if we received a paycheck every time we did something great. But, praise is free! And easy to administer. The more immediately you praise a behavior, the more likely you are able to see it again in the future. If Randy raises his hand, I want to immediately praise that. If I wait an hour and drop by Randy's desk during math and say, "Hey, thanks for raising your hand earlier," it will be less likely he will connect his behavior to my praise and thus, it probably won't be as reinforcing. 

6. Praise 4 times as much as corrective feedback

Giving positive feedback 4 times as much as corrective feedback is the golden ratio. Yes, you might feel like you're praising ad nauseam, but wouldn't you rather be giving out praise than office referrals? You should go home and think, "Oh my god, I'm never telling Caleb he walked quietly down the hall again." Wrong! Keep doing it! We want Caleb to walk quietly down the hall. He knows he should do it, but our kids need reminders that they are doing it right, not reprimands for doing it wrong. 

In a nut shell, remember these few things: 1) Gain the attention of your student 2) Describe the good behavior 3) End with a positive label 4) Reinforce effort and 5) Praise immediately.