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From Teacher magazine, I'm Rebecca Vukovic, and you're listening to an episode in our Behaviour Management series.
Researchers from Utah in the United States have found that to improve behaviour in class, teachers should focus on praising students for their good behaviour, rather than telling them off for being disruptive. They spent three years observing over 2500 students aged five to 12, across three US states. The study, published in Educational Psychology, showed a relationship between the praise-to-reprimand ratios used by teachers and the extent to which students focused on class activities.
For today's podcast I'm joined on the line by the lead researcher on the project, Professor Paul Caldarella from Brigham Young University. We discuss how they went about conducting the study, what they found, and whether there is indeed an ideal praise-to-reprimand ratio that teachers should be using to improve behaviour in their classrooms. Let's get started.
Rebecca Vukovic: Professor Paul Caldarella, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.
Paul Caldarella: Thank you.
RV: To begin, could you share what your motivation was for conducting this research in the first place?
PC: Yes, we were interested in studying whether teacher praise-to-reprimand ratios would have any relationship to student on-task behaviour in the classroom. There have been some studies on teacher praise, but not as many on the teacher praise-to-reprimand ratios – that is the ratio of positive to negative statements to students in the classroom. There had been some recommendations made in the literature that certain ratios would be beneficial to students – such that the more praise and the fewer reprimands, the better behaviour students would likely display in the classroom. And those recommendations were anywhere from 3:1 to 4:1 to 5:1 positive to negative statements for students. So we also wanted to see, was there a particular ratio where we saw the maximum benefit? So, was there a threshold at which we could encourage teachers to reach a certain threshold of praise to reprimand ratios? So those were the reasons for the study.
RV: To conduct the study, you and your research team spent three years observing over 2500 students and that was across three US states, from Kindergarten right through to Sixth Grade, or ages 5-12. Could you tell listeners about the specific research questions that you were trying to answer and then also what steps you took to find those answers?
PC: So the two specific research questions were: First of all, do teacher praise-reprimand ratios predict students' on-task behaviour? And the second question we wanted to investigate was, is there a particular praise-to-reprimand threshold for improving students' on-task behaviour in the classroom? And the way we went about conducting that was, we had two groups of classrooms – one were experimental classrooms and the other were [control] classrooms. So experimental and control classrooms. The experimental classrooms received training on an intervention called CW-FIT which stands for Class-Wide Function-Related Intervention Teams.
As part of the intervention, teachers were trained to increase their praise rate and also increase the quality of their praise to make it more behaviour specific and also to just increase the frequency with which they're displaying praise to students. The control classrooms, teachers were allowed to just teach the way they normally would and we were just there to observe what they were doing and also to watch what was happening in terms of student behaviour. And then we trained our observers, we trained the teachers in the intervention, who were in the treatment condition, and then we went about collecting our data. We collected it over three years as you said, with over 2500 students, five to 12 years of age (so basically Kindergarten through Sixth Grade) and then we basically analysed our data.
RV: And as you said there Paul, teachers in the treatment condition were asked to use the CW-FIT intervention as their primary classroom management tool. I'd like to delve into that a little more now. Could you explain to listeners what the CW-FIT intervention actually is?
PC: So CW-FIT is a multi-tiered behavioural intervention. The first tier of the intervention involves teachers teaching students classroom expectations. So things like following directions, raising your hand when you need assistance – those kinds of behaviours. And then it also involves having students work in teams or groups. So if a teacher has, let's say, 20 students in a classroom, there might be three groups of seven students – they have 21 students and three groups of seven students each and those students are on a team. And basically they're told that the goal when CW-FIT is being played is the students in each team will work together to display the expected behaviours, the classroom expectations, that this teacher has taught them.
So if the students understand I'm supposed to raise my hand when I have a question, I'm supposed to ask politely when I need to get up and go to the restroom or something. So they're taught certain specific social skills and then the teacher, every three to five minutes teachers had a timer on their person, either on their desk or it could be attached to their clothing that would either vibrate or beep and that would be a signal for the teacher to scan the room and look at those groups of students and award them points if they were following the classroom expectations. When the teacher awarded points, the teacher was also asked to praise student behaviour during those time periods as well.
If a group was doing what they were expected to do, the teacher would praise that group and also award them points. At the end of the instructional lesson, those teams that had earned enough points would get access to some type of a group reinforcer, something like maybe they could leave to go to lunch a little bit early or maybe they could put their feet up on their desk, or the teacher would play some music for a few minutes and then would turn the music down and that kind of thing – some kind of a group reinforcer. So that's the tier one of CW-FIT.
The second tier of CW-FIT involves teaching students how to manage their own behaviour through a self-management protocol where students are given a self-management sheet and on the sheet is written down the expected behaviours for them, for their individual situation. And then when that timer would go off, the teacher would look around and award points to those students who were meeting the expectations on the self-management sheet. Students on the self-management sheet could also rate themselves, whether they thought they were displaying the appropriate behaviour in the classroom.
So that's what the intervention CW-FIT is and this study in particular, CW-FIT was kind of happening in the background and was only happening in half of the classrooms. The reason why CW-FIT was helpful was because it helped us to increase the praise rates in classrooms. So without CW-FIT, most teachers would have had probably, maybe a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. But with CW-FIT, we were able to get much higher praise-to-reprimand ratios, because they received this training on increasing their praise rates.
RV: Let's delve into the results now. On a really simple level, what actually happened when the praise-to-reprimand ratio [PRR] in these classrooms increased?
PC: So what we saw was that as PRR increased, so did students' on-task behaviour. And this actually, we saw this both in control classrooms and in treatment classrooms. So even if the classroom teacher didn't get training in CW-FIT, if they had a high praise-to-reprimand ratio, they tended to have higher on-task behaviour in those classrooms. And we also saw that teachers who might have started off with the lower praise-to-reprimand ratio, after they received the training in CW-FIT, they improved their praise-to-reprimand ratio and also the student behaviour also improved, the on-task behaviour in the classroom. And we found that it averaged, we saw about a 20 to 30 per cent improvement as teachers improved their praise-to-reprimand ratios. So that's a significant amount, because at baseline we saw about 50 to 60 per cent of the time students were on-task but as teachers were able to improve their praise-to-reprimand ratios, we saw that jump to about 70-80 per cent on-task behaviour. So that was a significant improvement.
RV: And given all of this, you found though that there isn't necessarily a praise to reprimand ratio threshold at which behaviour dramatically improves, for example, 3:1 or 4:1 …
PC: Right, but instead what we found that the more praise and the less reprimanding, the better the students' behaviour tended to be. And so that's what our recommendation is, for teachers to really emphasise praising appropriate behaviour and trying to avoid lots of reprimanding of student inappropriate behaviour.
RV: We'll be back after this quick message from our sponsor.
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RV: Well we know that praise is really a simple classroom management strategy to implement. It's a tool that can be used to reinforce student behaviour and to recognise student engagement, but your paper acknowledges that praise is also greatly underutilised in schools. Why do you believe this is the case?
PC: It's a really good question. I think that part of it is, potentially could be habit, that teachers get into. It's also easier for teachers to pay attention to negative behaviour. It draws teacher's attention, when a student is not doing what they're supposed to be doing, it draws the teacher's attention. And so it might be a natural thing to try to correct that behaviour through a negative statement to the student. But it's kind of counter-intuitive because, instead, if we can focus on reinforcing students who are doing what we expect them to do, it stands to reason and the research kind of supports it that other students who aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing will learn from that. And if we can catch students ‘being good' or engaging in appropriate behaviour, that tends to increase that behaviour occurring more in the future.
So I think it's partly maybe the way teachers were socialised into teaching, it might have been the way they were taught themselves, and it also maybe just that negative behaviour or disruptive behaviour tends to grab our attention and so that is what we get attracted to trying to shape that behaviour. But instead, really what we want to do is try to focus on the appropriate behaviours and really reinforce those on a consistent basis to help give students feedback on the appropriate behaviour that they need to display in the classroom to improve their learning and also the learning of everybody in the class.
RV: And in the paper there's a quote that I found really interesting. I'll read it out for listeners now: ‘As educators search for feasible evidence-based interventions that fit their students' needs, interventions that result in positive outcomes and require little or no cost, such as PRRs, are particularly encouraging.' Could you expand on this one a little, Paul?
PC: Sure. You know, I think praise is one of those interventions that doesn't require a lot of training in order to be able to praise – we can all display praise statements to students. Now with coaching, the quality of our praise could probably improve, we could go for more general praise like, ‘hey good job', to ‘good job following along with the class today, that's going to improve your learning'. So if we add that additional rationale about why the behaviour is important, more behaviour specific, we'll get even better outcomes. But, even without training, if teachers could just create a more positive classroom environment through increasing their praise and decreasing their reprimands, this study suggests we're going to see improved classroom behaviour on the students' behalf. And so it's a simple intervention, it doesn't require a lot of training, it doesn't cost anything, and so there's really no reason why it couldn't be more greatly used in schools.
RV: So just to reiterate, Paul, this research says that if teachers increase their praise-to-reprimand ratios, even simply to a 1:1 ratio, students' on-task behaviour will improve. But of course that doesn't mean that other instructional techniques aren't needed …
PC: Right, yes. I see the praise-to-reprimand ratio as being kind of like a fundamental … if you don't have that, if you don't have a high praise-to-reprimand ratio to start off with, I think that's the place to start, when you're having issues in the classroom. Now, as you increase that ratio up to, as you said, 1:1 for example, for every negative statement there's a positive statement, that's a good place to start but let's see if we can get up to maybe 3:1 or 4:1 or 5:1 – because as you can see in the study that we did, the higher that ratio, the better the outcome. So the more we can do that.
[But] you're right in the sense that, it's probably not going to address all behaviour problems in the classroom or all the needs of all students. There are probably more students that are going to need more tier two or tier three interventions, more individualised interventions, to help them to be successful in the classroom.
RV: Yeah fantastic. Well Professor Paul Caldarella, thanks for sharing your work with Teacher magazine.
PC: Thank you for your interest.
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Caldarella, P., Larsen, R. A., Williams, L., Downs, K. R., Wills, H. P., & Wehby, J. H. (2020). Effects of teachers' praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students' on-task behaviour. Educational Psychology, 1-17.
As a classroom teacher, think about the ways you offer praise to students. How could you increase the rates of praise you use, while at the same time limiting the reprimands given to students? What impact does this have on your classroom environment?
Professor Paul Caldarella using the following examples to illustrate the difference between general and more specific praise: ‘hey, good job’; ‘good job following along with the class today, that’s going to improve your learning’. Do you tend to give general or more specific praise for student behaviour? Do you explain why the behaviour is important?