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Praising students for good behavior is central to many strategies for helping teachers deal with unruly students. Scolding students isn’t.

But does this nice-guy approach really work with kids who are testing boundaries, especially rambunctious adolescents?  One widely used program called CHAMPS was recently tested in a study involving more than 100 teachers and almost 1,500 middle-school students in a randomized controlled trial — the kind of gold-standard experiment that is common in medicine but not in education. The experiment took place in two St. Louis school districts with a majority of Black and low-income students. 

Teachers were coached to say three to five statements of praise for every reprimand and encouraged to raise their “praise rates,” which were monitored. Suddenly, lots of normal behavior became worthy of praise, even “Thank you for raising your hand” and “Thank you for sitting quietly.” 

Outside observers, who weren’t told which teachers got the training, noted that students were spending more time on task. More importantly, the program appeared to make an academic difference. Math and reading scores on one standardized test were slightly higher in the classrooms of teachers who got the training compared with classrooms that didn’t. 

“As educators, we often focus on communicating what we don’t want our students to be doing in class, but we have found that just doesn’t work,” said Keith Herman, a professor in the University of Missouri College of Education who was one of the researchers in the study, in a press release. “Instead, we need to be setting clear expectations of what behaviors we do want to be seeing.”

Herman’s middle school study was first posted online in 2020 by the Journal of Educational Psychology and is slated for publication later in 2021. Herman’s earlier 2018 study of a praise-heavy classroom management program for elementary school students called The Incredible Years also found positive results

There’s been considerable hand-wringing in America about how to praise children. In the 1980s and 1990s, parents were encouraged to lavish praise to raise self-esteem. Then psychologists told us we’d gone too far and had raised a generation of praise-addicted children who lacked internal motivation. Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist, told us it was harmful to praise a child for being smart because that praise makes the child less resilient when faced with a difficult challenge.

However, this pop-culture debate over the downside of praise “rests on the assumption students are bathed in rich rates of praise during school,” Herman told me via email. “In reality, most are not.”

Black students received 1.8 reprimands for every praise statement, Herman calculated in an earlier 2016 study of students in kindergarten through third grade. It was the opposite for white students; they received 1.5 praise statements for every reprimand.

Herman’s advice for teachers (and parents) is to start by analyzing why children behave badly. Herman believes that children typically act out to seek attention or to get out of doing something. “If a kid throws a chair to get removed from math class because they don’t want to do their work, that strategy works every time,” he said. “They get what they want!” 

Herman likes classroom-management programs that train teachers to think “scientifically” about bad behavior and come up with other ways for students to get what they want. For instance, a student who is trying to avoid math might be rewarded with a “break” after he completes one problem. “This seems like a small step but it breaks the cycle and starts a process of learning a new rule: If I ask for a break politely, I can accomplish the same goal as throwing a chair,” Herman explained to me. Gradually, Herman said, the student will be asked to complete more problems, from two to five to 10, before earning a break. “Eventually, the student learns the new rule and stays in the class without needing the problem behavior,” Herman said.

The purpose of all the praise is to reinforce the teacher’s rules and help the child feel good about making progress.The big idea is to prevent bad behavior from happening rather than reacting afterward to bad behavior. 

Teachers in the middle-school experiment received three full days of training, followed by several sessions of one-to-one coaching.  

“That’s the most important thing, for teachers to get some feedback on how they’re doing,” said Herman. “It’s hard to self-monitor. As a parent, I would guess that my praise rate is really high. It would be interesting for someone to come to my house and say, ‘This is your actual praise rate.’ For teachers to get that kind of feedback, it’s really eye-opening.”

Herman told me that the brand name of the classroom management program isn’t as important as making sure that it follows evidence-based strategies and has been evaluated in a study. Some programs, Herman said, are just a “bag of tricks” or a “hodgepodge of ideas” that don’t help teachers figure out what to do in new situations. Many popular programs haven’t been evaluated by outside researchers. 

Even well-designed classroom management programs don’t always work. In Herman’s middle school study, for example, classroom disruptions weren’t less frequent and students didn’t score any higher on annual state tests. (On a separate Stanford Achievement Test, students of the teachers who had been trained scored a bit higher, equivalent to moving the average student from the 50th percentile to the 55th percentile in English and 56th percentile in math.) Another highly regarded program, School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), had previously shown positive short-term results but a 2021 Norwegian study found that it didn’t improve student achievement over the long term at all

That was a disappointment to experts in the field and we need to understand better when these programs work and when they don’t. It’s also hard to understand why the opposite approach of strict discipline with reprimands and punishments has worked well for some charter school networks. (It remains a big question whether the strict discipline is changing a child’s behavior for the better or if unruly children are less likely to attend a strict discipline school.) Managing students isn’t always straightforward nor is the research.

This story about praise was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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