What can psychology tell me about how to improve my middle school students’ behavior?
I was in the back seat of a yellow taxi gripping my mother’s hand like a 5-year-old, scared and hoping her mommy would make it all right. But in fact I was 28 years old, still scared, and hoping my mommy would make it all right.
We were coming home from UCSF hospital, and I was in a full-body brace, having survived spinal-fusion surgery exactly a week earlier and heading to the tiny walk-up apartment my husband and I shared over the Stockton Tunnel in San Francisco. Each time the taxi lurched around a corner or bounced over the famously steep hills, it felt like every vertebra was being shaken out of alignment. I was Humpty Dumpty mid-fall, wondering if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would be able to put me together again.
I opened my mouth to yell at the driver or at least whimper, but before I could do either, my mom leaned forward and exclaimed brightly, “Thank you!” The driver glanced at us suspiciously from his rearview mirror.
“You’re just the best driver I’ve ever seen,” my mom continued. “These hills must be so hard to drive on. And I’m so grateful, because you see, I’m taking my daughter home. She had surgery on her back and is so fragile. And because of you, she’s going to get home safe. Thank you. You’re wonderful.”
In the mirror, I could see the driver smile proudly. I felt a flash of resentment, but before I had a chance to contradict my mother’s praise, a miracle happened. The driver slowed down. He craned his neck left and right before making each turn. And indeed, he drove us home like the best driver I’d ever seen. And because of that, I arrived home intact.
In that moment of crisis, what my psychologically wise mom had intuited was only obvious to me in retrospect: Praise is powerful.
One recent study of 28 middle school classrooms found that the ratio of praise to reprimands strongly predicts a multitude of positive outcomes. The more teachers praised students (“Great job finishing your paper, Billy!” “Class, you listened very carefully during the lesson on fractions!”) relative to how often they reprimanded them (“Start paying attention, or your name is going on the board!” or “Sam, stop bothering Kim!”) predicted greater academic engagement and even report card grades, particularly for students who at baseline were more disruptive.
Don’t react to bad behavior with reprimands. Criticism can lead to defensiveness and opposition.
Do praise the positive. By highlighting what you appreciate in another person, you might create a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous cycle in which the expectation of acting positively leads to more reasons for praise. For instance, right now, I’d like to leave you with this: Great job reading this tip! The young people in your life are very lucky to have a caring adult like you continually looking for ways to be more psychologically wise!
The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.