Elementary and middle school teachers dealing with disruptive students might want to call upon an under-used weapon: praise. Teachers who spent less time punishing kids for doing the wrong thing and more time praising them when they got it right were far more effective at keeping the students in their classes focused on their schoolwork.

Researchers followed over 2500 students who were in kindergarten through sixth grade for three years. Members of the team sat in 151 classes, in 19 elementary schools across Missouri, Tennessee and Utah. In half of the classes teachers used their usual classroom management techniques. In the other half of the classrooms, teachers followed a behavioral intervention program that emphasized the social skills students were expected to use during lessons and reward them for doing so.

Praise is encouraging and inspires kids to work harder.

The team kept track of the ratio of praise to reprimands (PRR) used by the teachers and the extent students focused on class activities. They found that the more teachers praised and the less that they scolded, the better students paid attention to the teacher or their assigned tasks.

In classes where the ratio of praise to reprimand was highest — more praise and fewer reprimands — children spent between 20 to 30 percent more time focusing on the teacher or task at hand compared to those in classes where the PRR was lowest. It is worth noting that behavior was better even in classes that didn't receive the social skills training but which had a higher ratio of praise to reprimands.

“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,” explained Paul Caldarella, a professor at the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young.

It's easy to understand why teachers might end up accentuating the negative. The immediate disruption of bad behavior is hard to ignore, while they may take good behavior for granted and just go on with their lessons without making a note of it.

“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. Even if teachers praised as much as they reprimanded, students' on-task behavior reached 60%,” said Caldarella. “However, if teachers could increase their praise to reprimand ratio to 2:1 or higher, they would see even more improvements in the classroom.”

Praise is encouraging and inspires kids to work harder, especially those who are struggling. “Everyone values being praised and recognised for their endeavours — it is a huge part of nurturing children's self-esteem and confidence,“ said Caldarella, adding, “Also from a behavioral perspective, behavior that is reinforced tends to increase…” When kids are praised for paying attention, working quietly, or waiting their turn to speak, that helps reinforce those behaviors.

Praise is just one tool teachers have to manage their classes. Though often overlooked, it is not a replacement for good instruction or other class management techniques, but its role in improving students' focus can make a real difference. Praise works for parents, too.

The study is published in Educational Psychology.