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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Praise - Winning Classroom Management

All teachers have a superpower: their attention. Whatever teachers pay attention to is what they’ll see more of in the classroom. Unfortunately, many teachers are unaware of this power and inadvertently spend a lot of time reinforcing the negative behavior they want to see less of.

Teachers who play to win the classroom management game help students practice the prosocial skills they’ll need to be successful. Instead of focusing on what students are doing wrong, utilizing the power of attention helps students see and practice the correct behaviors they should be imitating.

Called differential social attention, this approach informs students that they will not be subjected to psychological pain. Trust is built because poor behavior, or behavior that misses the mark, is not called out. Instead, students meeting expectations are praised while poor behavior is ignored as much as possible. This allows those students a chance to correct their actions and receive much needed praise without going through a cycle of shame and belittlement. This, then, gives them the space to begin regulating their emotions, inhibit inappropriate behavior, and pursue their developmental potential.

The interdependence of the four keys are evident when it comes to praise. It’s especially powerful when it comes from an adult that the student respects and has a positive relationship with. It communicates important information to students, such as their social competence and the behavioral standards without being overly controlling. Even more importantly, praise helps to shape students’ self-identity. Praising students for their prosocial behavior helps them self-identify as moral, compassionate people.

All people, including children, tend to behave in ways that align with their concept of their identity and what kind of person they are. Using the letters in the word praise, successful behavior descriptions should be personal, recurring, assorted, immediate, specific, and enthusiastic.

Generic statements are like eating a snow cone with no syrup - it’s just ice! When praising students, make it personal by including their names. Direct it at someone or a few students in particular. The statement, “The class is getting out their textbooks,” is a broad description that’s vague and impersonal. Instead, “Jerome has his textbook on his desk and is ready to learn,” is personal and Jerome is probably feeling pretty good about himself.

Praise should also be recurring. Television broadcasts of sporting events typically have at least two announcers in the booth. One is the play-by-play caller, producing a steady stream of narration about what’s happening on the screen. The other is the color commentator, the analyst that chimes in periodically to offer a contrasting opinion or a different voice. When starting out, teachers should be a play-by-play praiser. Students need a steady, recurring stream of commentary describing positive behaviors. As the class gains a firm foundation in successful behaviors, teachers can slow down and become more of a periodic color commentator praiser.

Patterns are great for math and science but not for praise. Successful praise statements are assorted and varying. Even if personal, students will quickly tune out praise if the same three statements are used repeatedly. Mix things up and keep it fresh or else run the risk of proving the adage that familiarity breeds contempt.

Immediate praise is often overlooked but a critical factor in selective attention. Even if teachers were to tie a praise statement successfully to something that happened five minutes before, maximum effect comes from an immediate reward. Think of how animals are trained to perform a trick. With treats in hand, trainers help them perform a task and immediately reward them with a treat when successful. That rapid reward begins to associate the trick with a positive outcome and a habit is born. Too much space between a positive behavior and a praise statement waters down its effect.

Specific statements can sometimes make all the difference in the world. If a teacher were to say, “I see that Kaitlyn is ready to learn,” students that want to mimic Kaitlyn’s behavior to receive the teacher’s attention are left to their own devices as to how to copy her. If, instead, the teacher specifies her behaviors, such as, “Kaitlyn has a pencil out and a piece of paper. I see that she’s put her heading on the top and she’s facing the board, waiting for instructions,” now other students have a clear, specific pathway to being successful.

Finally, praise statements must be enthusiastic. So much of what is communicated is not through the words themselves but the tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal factors. Teachers can say, “De’Andre is lined up behind Janice with two squares in between,” all day long but if it’s with a flat tone and neutral expression, students won’t know whether that’s a compliment or a simple description. It’s the enthusiasm teachers imbue into their praise statements that give it the stamp of approval that makes it worthy of everyone’s attention.

To maximize the power of attention and give students the chance to practice positive behaviors without the fear of being shamed for not meeting expectations, try these strategies.

  1. Roster tally chart. Many teachers overestimate how often they actually praise students. Even worse, praise tends to coalesce around the best students and never reaches those who need it the most. To combat this, teachers can print a class roster and place a tally mark next to each student’s name after they have received a praise statement. After doing this for a few days, patterns will emerge and teachers can specifically target the students who are underpraised so they receive social attention when meeting expectations.

  2. Set a time bound goal. At the beginning of the year, teachers will need to praise early and often, keeping up a stream of commentary until meeting behavioral expectations becomes the rule rather than the exception. To help this process, teachers can set a goal of giving a certain number of praise statements within a set time (e.g., 10 praise statements in 5 minutes). Noting these using tally marks can help keep teachers on track with the high volume of praise needed to normalize prosocial behavior.

  3. Pennies in the pocket. The power of praise to focus students on desired behavior is diluted when teachers continue to fuss at students for infractions. To help, teachers can keep pennies in their pockets and transfer them from one to the other based on whether positive or negative attention was given to children. For example, a teacher might start with 25 pennies in each pocket, designating the left pocket as positive attention and the right pocket as negative attention. Each time students receive attention from the teacher, a penny is moved from the right to the left pocket if it’s praise and from the left to the right if it’s negative attention. At the end of the day, simply count the pennies in each pocket to see if the attention was balanced or (hopefully) skewed toward praise.

Find all the episodes in this web series (and the free eBook) here.


Bergin, C. (2018). Designing a prosocial classroom: Fostering collaboration in students from prek-12 with the curriculum you already use. W.W. Norton & Company.

Daffern, A. (2021). Take charge of the classroom: Disrupting outdated behavior management models. Aaron Daffern Consulting.

Willans, A., & Williams, C. (2018). Freedom to learn: Creating a classroom where every child thrives. New Society Publishers.

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