Honey & Vinegar: Teacher Praise Over Punishment Results In 30% Greater Student Focus

PROVO, Utah — Each teacher has their own approach to classroom discipline, but we’ve all had a few instructors who were particularly quick to lay down some punishment if a student acted out of line. Many teachers believe a hard stance against troublemakers is essential to maintaining a viable learning environment, but a new study finds teachers will catch higher grades from their students with honey than with vinegar.

Researchers from Brigham Young University have concluded that teachers can foster improved focus in the classroom by praising students for their good behavior, instead of dishing out punishment when they are disruptive. The study’s authors spent three full years on this project, and observed 2,536 students from three states (Missouri, Tennessee, Utah). Participating students varied in age, with some classes being as young as kindergartners and others as old as the sixth grade. In all, 151 classes participated in the study.

The students focused up to 20-30% more on academic tasks when their teachers incorporated more praise into their teaching styles.

In half of the participating classrooms, teachers were instructed to follow a behavioral intervention program called CW-FIT. This program entailed students being informed of the behavior and social skills they were expected to display in class, and then being rewarded for following those guidelines. Meanwhile, the other half of teachers were told to simply keep on running their classes as they normally would.

The study found that the more teachers praised, and the less that they punished or scolded, the more students paid attention and completed assigned work. This held true among both experimental groups. Compared to students who were punished most often, classes that received the most praise tended to focus on their work 20-30% longer.

“Unfortunately, previous research has shown that teachers often tend to reprimand students for problem behavior as much or more than they praise pupils for appropriate behavior, which can often have a negative effect on classrooms and student behavior,” says Dr. Caldarella, from the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young, in a release.

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“Praise is a form of teacher feedback, and students need that feedback to understand what behavior is expected of them, and what behavior is valued by teachers,” he adds. “Even if teachers praised as much as they reprimanded, students’ on-task behavior reached 60%. However, if teachers could increase their praise to reprimand ratio to 2:1 or higher, they would see even more improvements in the classroom.”

All in all, these findings suggest that praise and positive reinforcement are powerful tools that many teachers fail to utilize in their classrooms. The study’s authors even go so far as to say that troubled students who often act out or disrupt class likely have the most to gain from a little bit of positivity from their teachers.

“Everyone values being praised and recognized for their endeavors – it is a huge part of nurturing children’s self-esteem and confidence,” Dr. Caldarella concludes. “Also from a behavioral perspective, behavior that is reinforced tends to increase – so if teachers are praising students for good behavior – such as attending to the teacher, asking for help appropriately, etc – it stands to reason that this behavior will increase, and learning will improve.”

The study is published in Educational Psychology.