Imagine if there were a very simple habit parents and teachers could adopt that would increase the odds their children and students would achieve great success in life.

It turns out there is, according to a new study, and it all comes down to making small changes in how adults praise these children.

I've explored before how changing the specific words that parents and teachers use while praising children can have a profound effect. However, this study looked at the sheer volume of praise, and tried to quantify its effect.

This isn't the "everybody gets a participation trophy" movement, by any means. But if you're a parent or a teacher, or you care about the success of the next generation, you're probably going to want to track this.

The more, the better.

It's been clear for a while that praising students can lead to better behavior, which in turn leads to better academic outcomes and success, while reprimands can lead to worse behavior and worse outcomes.

So, this study spanned three years, and examined how teachers interacted with 2,536 students, between kindergarten and sixth grade.

Traditionally, educators have been taught they should aim for a 3:1 or even 4:1 ratio of praise to reprimand, but this study's authors found no simple quantifiable amount of praise that can serve to offset a specific amount of rebuke.

Instead, as lead study author Paul Caldarella, who teaches in the counseling, psychology and special education department at Brigham Young University, put it, according to CNN: "There is no particular ratio. The higher the praise the better the results."

Twenty minutes at a time.

Writing in the journal Educational Psychology, Caldarella and his colleagues explained they recruited a team of researchers to observe classroom interactions during 20-minute periods, and attempted to correlate praise, reprimands, and what they call "student on-task behavior" in the classrooms. 

In half the classes, the teachers were asked simply to teach as they normally would; in the other half, teachers were instructed to teach using a behavior program called "CW-FIT," which stands for Class-Wide Function-related Intervention Teams, that emphasizes goal-setting and praise.

The exact times of the 20-minute sessions were "chosen by the teacher as having the most challenging behavior," and the researchers had to identify in real time whether a teacher's comment to a student qualified as praise, a reprimand, or neither.

Here's a bit on how they broke it down.

They defined praise as a "verbal indication of approval following student behavior." It included things like:

  • "Well done, class, you all followed directions and got in line quietly!"
  • "Way to go, Robyn!"

But they excluded vague, yet generally positive statements, like: "Thanks, Rodrigo."

Reprimands were defined as "verbal disapproval (including a threat or scolding) in response to inappropriate behavior or instruction that the behavior must stop." So, examples included things like:

  • "Everyone needs to keep their hands and feet to [themselves]."
  • "Kevin, I told you to stop throwing paper."

But not vague disapproval, like "No, that's not it." Also excluded (and this might bring you back to your school days): "the action of staring at students and silently waiting for them to stop talking were not included" among the reprimands.

Results.

The surprise result was that researchers found a "linear" relationship between the degree to which teachers praised students, and the degree to which students exhibited "on-task behavior."

In other words: more praise, more "on-task behavior." As much as 20 to 30 percent more in classes with a high praise-to-reprimand ratio, compared to the results in classes with a lower ratio.

While the study wasn't designed to take this a step further, the theory is that "on-task behavior" in general leads to better academic results.

As a result,  Caldarella suggested parents should try to get their children into the classes of teachers who are known for offering praise. If they can't do that, he suggests sharing the results of the study with teachers, according to CNN.

Combine this with some of the research we've seen on praising kids for the quality of their effort, rather than for their innate gifts, and it could have significantly positive effects.

"Behavior that is reinforced tends to increase," Caldarella said in the university statement. "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."

Published on: Feb 7, 2020
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