Imagine going to your job each and every day and being criticized publicly in front of your coworkers.
Imagine this happening for the 3rd day in a row after you woke up late, didn’t have your breakfast or coffee because you can’t afford it right now, and your spouse yelled at you for not putting your shoes on quickly enough.
Once your boss corrected and confronted you about your poor attitude and work ethic more times than you can count by 10 AM, your brain has shifted to one of three mindsets:
1. Save your tears and your bad mood for home— you can definitely take out all your frustrations on the people there
2. Save face in front of your coworkers and fight back— even though that means more reprimands today and your boss will continue to micromanage your every move from here on out
3. Shut down— you get nothing done and your work piles up— yes, that means your boss starts all over again on you tomorrow
This is what it’s like for so many students at school.
Are Teachers to Blame?
Teachers are humans, too. While providing instruction both in-person and online, class sizes are topping out at 40 in some areas making it challenging for even the most seasoned teachers to give any more. They need a quick, easy tool that can make a big impact on the overall stressful environment of the physical and virtual classroom.
Studies have shown time and time again the importance of creating a positive climate for students at school. The University of Connecticut found in a 2008 study that specific praise was the simplest and most successful strategy in the classroom for improving work productivity, on-task behavior, academic performance, and compliance among other desired outcomes.
Some parents and educators roll their eyes at the thought of positive reinforcement rather than a good old-fashioned public shaming. But, the power here is in the teacher’s proactive stance rather than a reactive classroom culture that pushes students to one of those three negative mindsets.
While having an unbelievable amount of expectations and pressure, teachers can implement an easy, foolproof method quickly to help students progress academically and socially. The recipe is a 4:1 ratio of specific praise to correction.
By giving students four statements of specific praise for every correction, the culture of the classroom changes.
The magic is in the mindset shift of the teacher, which in turn changes the mindset of the students.
The 4:1 ratio is not a new concept. In a 2000 publication by Stephen Ray Flora, studies from 1995 actually indicate “Five to one gets the job done”. However, in recent years, popular school-wide behavior programs and frameworks such as PBIS and Boys Town’s Well-Managed Schools have adopted and still recommend the 4:1 ratio as effective.
How Teachers Can Implement the 4:1 Ratio
Sound overwhelming? Here are some quick tips to help you get started.
Cultivate a positive mindset. This may not come naturally for some. Set aside time at the beginning of each day to get in a positive state of mind. Find that perfect uplifting song, mantra, or bible verse and change your outlook on the day before the students walk through the door.
Start with academic praise instead of trying to praise everyone for everything. Many teachers find it less overwhelming to start with academic praise because it’s usually objective with less emotion. It’s also easier to be specific with academic feedback because the evidence is clear and you’ve already set and shared your learning goals at the start of your lesson.
Compliment the most challenging student at the start of the day or class period. Everyone has a student in mind here. You’re thinking it may be really hard to find something positive to say because your relationship already feels strained. Think ahead about challenging times or subjects in the day for them and make sure they’re hearing something positive before they need that correction or reminder.
Track corrections throughout the day in a simple format. A quick jot of a student’s initials on your clipboard or sticky note after a correction followed by a tally for each praise thereafter can be a powerful tool for you. Having a visual representation of what a particular student is hearing from you in the fast pace of the school day can change your whole perception of what’s really going on. Just make sure to collect this data in a place for your eyes only.
Reflection at the end of the day or week. Although this doesn’t have to be formal, it’s important to acknowledge not only how you’re feeling during this learning process, but the growth or stagnation of the students both academically and socially.
Set goals to improve as the technique gets easier. An attainable goal at first might be a 3:1 praise to correction ratio and move later to 4:1 or even 5:1 for specific students who need that boost. Be patient with yourself— you got this!
What Is Specific Positive Feedback?
Specific, positive praise doesn’t have to be mushy fluff. Even teachers who don’t have that typical maternal teaching style can be successful in putting positivity in their classroom. Be sure to include the action not just a general, “Good job.” And most importantly— make it genuine and make it you. Kids know fake.
“You did a great job highlighting evidence in the text. That shows you are paying attention to all the details.”
“I love how you problem-solved by drawing a picture to show your thinking on the first problem.”
“It is so exciting to hear you start your sentence with ‘I disagree because’ when talking about your answers with your partner. It proves to me you can clearly communicate what you’re thinking.”
“Thank you for having your materials ready for class! You are able to start on your work right away.”
“When you helped Sarah pick up her station at the end of class, it really showed me how kind you are.”
“Wow! Look how much you wrote! This is what it looks like to work hard.”
Why is This Important Now?
With the youth’s mental health shifting into national focus during the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, now is the time to refocus efforts from helping students survive through school, to thrive at school.
As some communities are returning to the classroom for the first time since March 2020, kids are re-learning to follow expectations, respect boundaries, interact with their peers, and even sit in a chair for several hours a day. And many of them are struggling with it.
Whether students come to school tired, hungry, angry, or sad, educators have the privilege to engage and inspire kids every day by mindfully improving what they already do— speaking and engaging the students they love and call their own.