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Students are more likely to focus when teachers highlight good behavior

Researchers say calling out bad behavior can yield poorer outcomes in the classroom

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While many teachers struggle with getting their students to focus throughout the school day, a new study found one such way to keep kids engaged during lessons. 

According to the researchers, students are more likely to stay focused and respond positively when teachers highlight good behavior, whereas calling out bad behavior doesn’t yield the same effect. 

“Everyone values being praised and recognised for their endeavours -- it is a huge part of nurturing children’s self-esteem and confidence,” said researcher Dr. Paul Caldarella. “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.” 

Better classroom behavior

To assess students’ classroom behavior and their teachers’ interventions, the researchers observed over 2,500 students for three years, ranging in age from kindergarten through sixth grade. 

The students and teachers involved in the study spanned 151 different classrooms. While half of the teachers went about their lessons and behavior management skills as usual, the other half implemented a program that instructed students on appropriate classroom behavior. The students who received that instruction were also rewarded for good behavior. 

The researchers found that the more teachers yelled at students for exhibiting bad behavior in the classroom, the more difficult it became to hold the students’ attention and carry on as usual with their lessons and activities. 

However, when teachers took the opposite approach, praising students for a job well done, that good behavior was more consistent. Moreover, teachers were able to get through more of their lessons with high levels of student engagement and focus. 

Though highlighting good behavior proved to be an effective classroom management strategy, the researchers explained that it isn’t always as easy as just praising students; teachers also need to use their best judgement when trying to maintain control of the classroom and their students’ attention. 

“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,” said Dr. Caldarella. “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.” 

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