Proof of the power of praise

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
As the head of the Government's behaviour taskforce urges schools to take responsibility for changing pupils for the better, new research confirms that punishing and reprimanding unruly children is not the way to keep classes under control.

Detentions, lines and harsh tellings-off are less effective for controlling unruly pupils than praise for work well done, a new study has revealed.

A group of teachers was instructed to reward good behaviour during lessons.

They were also encouraged to acknowledge when pupils had completed a task they had been set.

Whenever they upbraided pupils for bad behaviour, teachers were told to indicate clearly what conduct was expected instead. Jeremy Swinson and Alex Harrop, of Liverpool John Moores university, said the effect was dramatic.

They said: "It is probable that this change more than any other resulted in the pupils becoming better behaved, and as a result were told off less."

The proportion of pupils on-task in lessons rose from 77 per cent to 94 per cent, and the need for classroom admonishment dropped from 46 per cent to 15 per cent. On average, only 4 per cent of teachers' praise is for pupils'

behaviour while behaviour claims 29 per cent of negative feedback.

Dr Swinson said: "If you get rewards for something, people, like animals, will do it more often. If you praise kids who do what you want, you send the message that the way to get approval is by following instructions."

Teachers from five primaries in north-west England participated in the research project. Seven secondary teachers from one comprehensive also took part. In a half-day training session, the teachers were given a list of four essential rules to follow. They were told to give clear instructions, to look for the behaviour they wanted, rather than what they did not want, and to frequently acknowledge students who were doing what was required of them.

They were also told to change the frequency of feedback to students, for example offering more praise at the start of a new activity.

The report's authors now believe that the skills tested during this session should be offered to all teachers during their initial training. "I don't think teachers are aware of this technique," said Dr Swinson. "I think teacher-training establishments concentrate on the curriculum aspect of lessons, not pupil management. But they are equally important."

Jenny Moseley, a Wiltshire-based behaviour consultant, says that many training courses already include such techniques. But she believes that to be successfully implemented they require a whole-school commitment. "It's hard for teachers to ignore the bad and focus on the good," she said. "It takes a lot of energy. If staff are talking negatively to each other, it's hard to be positive in the classroom."

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said: "If you can tell me the positive in one child beating up another child, I'd be grateful. There are circumstances where it has to be made clear that some behaviour is unacceptable.

"If children came to school with a clear understanding of what was and wasn't acceptable, it might be sufficient to emphasise the positive, but we live in the real world, with real children."

News 17, primary forum 24 debate on behaviour at

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