When I visited an award-winning middle school a while back, I was impressed with the collaborative spirit among the teachers, the deep relationships the principal and staff had developed with the students, and the payoff in student-achievement results the school was seeing as a result of an intense focus on relevance and rigor in the curriculum.
Just one thing, or one student, marred my impressions of the school. Throughout the day, that student took every opportunity to interrupt teachers, distract classmates, and waste precious class time. There were outbursts, random movements, loud pencil sharpening, and tossed objects. While the student’s behavior was disturbing, the teachers’ reactions were what concerned me most. Discipline was essentially a plea for better behavior, with the teachers calling the student “Sweetie” each time. They also took numerous opportunities to praise the student for behaving appropriately. Other students did not get similar praise for paying attention, maintaining order in the hallways, and the like.
Apparently, the school’s behavior plan called for such effusive and unwarranted praise for particularly unruly students. From what I could tell, it didn’t do anything to improve the student’s behavior. I wondered if the student secretly delighted in winning teacher praise simply for testing their patience, and essentially acting like a 2-year-old.
I was reminded of that school visit when I came across this article by Harvard child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd.
The article is geared to parents, who often find it difficult to balance praise and criticism of their children. But it also seems applicable for teachers who are trying to manage student behavior while boosting self-esteem, all the while trying to teach the knowledge and skills children need to succeed academically.
I know from visiting hundreds of schools throughout the country that classroom management is a big struggle for many teachers, and precious instructional time can be lost trying to deal with a single disruptive student. There’s also increased pressure on teachers not to offend students, who may be inclined to complain to administrators or parents about being criticized in front of classmates. They might even try to egg the teacher in the hope of capturing it on video for YouTube.
But is praise the answer? Perhaps.
“Praise can be very helpful, good research shows, when it is sincere and connected to real effort and substantial, specific accomplishment—instead of telling children over and over that they are “smart,” better to compliment them on a real, specific act of intelligence, whether it’s picking up on a subtle social cue or developing a strong idea for a paper for school. And every child should be told at times that they are ‘great’ or ‘terrific.’
“But children tend to know when they have really accomplished something and when they have not, and too much unconditional praise or frequent praise that isn’t connected to real achievements can create self-doubts and cynicism about adults. It’s patronizing.”
So what’s the best way to balance criticism and praise? How do you inhibit this kind of behavior without disenfranchising the student?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.