Teaching practices—2: Praise works!
Why should educators abandon this essential tool?
Some educators may scoff about the power of praising students’ appropriate behavior, but they will have a hard time denying the evidence. If teachers want to reinforce a given behavior, praise can increase the chances that the behavior will recur.
To be sure, there are popular writers about education who have disparaged praising students’ behaviors, and I shall return to their critiques in a few paragraphs. But, first, I want to provide some compelling evidence about how teachers’ praise can change behavior.
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I’ll start with a classic study by Hall et al. (1968). In the very first article ever published in the prestigious Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Hall and colleagues reported on the effects of teachers providing praise contingent on students displaying “study behavior” (i.e., attending to task). They found that teachers providing reinforcement when their students were attending to task increased the amount of time the students spent attending to task.
After independent observers collected data for few a days about levels of students’ study behavior for “baseline,” Hall and colleagues had the teachers provide reinforcement (“treatment”) by moving toward the student’s desk, providing a positive comment, delivering a pat on the shoulder, etc. when the child was displaying study behavior. Later, the teacher stopped providing the treatment (“reversal”), and subsequently reintroduced it (“reinforcement2”).
The accompanying figure shows what happened to Robbie’s attention to task when baseline and treatment were in effect. (See the full article for additional illustrations.)
If you ask me, as a teacher, I’d prefer to have kids engaging in study behavior during the Reinforcement1 and Rinforcement2 conditions than the baseline and reversal situations. Dang! Just letting a kid know she or he is doing well makes that much of a difference? I’m going for it!
But, wait. Are these results just a one-off, some case study with Robbie who was vulnerable? That is, do these results reflect reality?
Brandi Simonsen has been a leading advocate for teachers employing praise as an important part of their teaching practices.
In a synthesis of many studies, Simonsen et al. (2008) reinforced (excuse me) the findings from the simple study by Hall et al. (1968). They reported that many successful studies of teaching practices incorporated praise as feature of effective teaching.
In a very practitioner-friendly article, Myers et al. (2017; Simonsen is a co-author) provided explicit guidance about using praise, among other techniques, to maximize academic achievement, social competence, students’ success, and a positive classroom environment.
You have probably heard some people say that the foregoing is, well, BS. Probably the most well-known advocate of this view is Alfie Kohn (2001; Five Reasons to Stop Saying, “Good Job.”).
In that and other publications, Mr. Kohn says, for example, that the reversals (from treatment to baseline) show the improvements are not lasting. Sorta-kinda true. But the argument misunderstands the point: If kids can live in one of two different environments, one that is a more positive and where their behavior is improved versus one when the positives are missing and behavior is less successful, what should we choose for children? I’d say it’s better to create environments where kids are successful than to let them flounder.
Kohn also argued that praising appropriate behavior (among many teaching procedures to which he objects...testing, grading, standards...) is consistent with non-punitive methods of which he approves.
I agree that punitive methods should be avoided; we don’t want to catch kids being bad...catch ‘em being good. He objects to praise because he says that it (a) manipulates children, (b) creates “praise junkies,” (c) steals children’s pleasure, (d) makes children lose interest in their work, and (e) reduces achievement. Read his publications to learn how he presents evidence to support these contentions. If one reads his actual arguments, I think one realizes that his argument is predicated on image, abstraction, and theory.
Readers can find lots of critiques of Mr. Kohn’s arguments. Phil Strain and Fail Joseph (2004) provided a particularly cogent one with “A Not So Good Job with ‘Good Job’: A response to Kohn 2001.” After taking a gulp from Mr. Kohn’s goblet, the Strain and Joseph article will offer a head-clearing remedy.
So, the takeaway. Most objections to praising appropriate behavior are on wobbly foundations. They are predicated on highly specific theories that have minimal application to everyday life (i.e., little “external validity”).
Please understand that this is not a thorough review of the literature on praise. The purpose here is to remind us that when praise is a consequence of children’s behavior, it is likely to increase the frequency of that behavior in the future. So, if we as special educators, want to see more attention to task, playing in a friendly way, talking politely, helping peers during difficult situations...we should let kids know that we value those behaviors.
Thus, please promote the use of what Dan O’Leary (1980) and colleagues dubbed, “catch ‘em being good.”
Hall, R. V., Lund, D., & Jackson. D. (1968). Effects of teacher attention on study behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 1-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310970/pdf/jaba00083-0003.pdf
Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying “good job”. Young Children, 56(5), 24-30.
Myers, D., Freeman, J., Simonsen, B., & Sugai, G. (2017). Classroom management with exceptional learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, 49(4), 223-230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040059916685064
O’Leary, K. D., Schneider, M., & Wieners, J. (1980). Catch’em being good. Research Press.
Simonsen, B., Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D., & Sugai, G. (2008). Evidence-based practices in classroom management: Considerations for research to practice. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 351-380. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42899983