Recently, I have had the fortunate opportunity to observe teachers and parents interact with their students/children in multiple settings. I either walk away eager to offer some corrective feedback or exhilarated that I just witnessed a master at his/her craft! While many variables influence my general perspective following an observation, the essential one is with respect to praise. Praise, loosely defined, is a positive statement. Some examples of general praise statements include the following: well done, good job, I like how you ____. While the field of Behavior Analysis stresses the importance of behavior-specific praise to shape behavior, I’m going to just talk about general praise. When I’m in a classroom or a house that is void of praise, any praise would be better than no praise at all.
At our learning center, and in classrooms and centers across the world utilizing Behavior Analysis, often external reinforcement (e.g., tokens, cookies, stickers) are required to increase motivation for work completion, accuracy, and/or fluency. The term “become the cookie” indicates that spending time with the teacher or therapist is so reinforcing that an external reinforcer is no longer required. Instead of giving cookies, the teacher is the cookie. Just the mere presence of the teacher is good enough - and motivating.
Many parents and teachers are really good at identifying/noticing the undesirable behavior: talking out of turn, getting out of the chair, fighting during homework time. When so much focus is placed on eliminating those behaviors, it becomes easy to overlook the good behaviors when they occur. Some people even assume that the student “should” be engaging in those appropriate behaviors anyway, eliminating the “need” to attend to them. This creates an environment that is built upon suppression and working to just avoid reprimand instead of one that facilitates creativity, problem solving, and self-worth.
Conversely, an environment that is rich in praise is uplifting. Even as an observer, one can walk away feeling good even though he/she was not specifically praised. The one delivering the praise not only attends to the appropriate behaviors as a form of classroom/household management, but also models the behavior of a good, caring citizen of the world. My 3.5-year-old daughter walks around the playground praising her peers for their slide, swing, and climbing techniques., even when she doesn't know their names.
At Precision TLC, we keep data on our instructors’ praise during training and employee audits. We aim for one authentic, behavior-specific praise statement every 1-2 min during a session. We require so much from our students and we should, therefore, require a lot from ourselves. Only when we provide an environment of empowerment, encouragement and support are we able to efficiently improve academic behaviors. We see it daily in the data we religiously collect.
As a teacher or a parent, I challenge you to count the number of praise statements you say in a period of 10 minutes. Keep a tally on an event counter or a sticky note. How does your frequency compare to our criterion at the center? Further, be aware of what you are requiring from your student(s). Are you asking first graders to sit silently for 20 min and write a paragraph? Are you asking a third grader to independently complete a 6-step long division problem? These are difficult tasks for these students and as such, deserve even more praise! Walk around the room and commend the students on their handwriting, added details, and focus on the task at hand. Collectively exalt the fact that the children were working for 2 min in absolute silence!
When a parent/teacher thinks more about what he/she can praise versus what he/she can reprimand, the behavior of the teacher/parent instantly changes. As a result, the students' behavior also changes. If you do not have the desire or time to read the research on praise and reinforcement, the beaming smiles of pride and accomplishment on your student’s face will be proof enough that using ample amounts of praise is an effective classroom/household management system.