3 Tips for Remembering Behavior-Specific Praise

Did you know that one of the BEST thing you can do to manage your classroom is also the simplest?

Really! Just increase your rates of positive comments and praise!

Note that I said this was the simplest intervention and NOT the easiest. Because while, in theory, this is a no-brainer, it can be really difficult to do in practice. In addition, the type of praise you give matters, and behavior-specific praise is shown to be the most effective. But, it is also the one that comes least naturally.

Behavior-specific praise is exactly what it sounds like: encouraging a very specific and exact “behavior” of a student. So, instead of saying “good job,” or “nice work,” or “thanks, Katie,” you say, “good job writing your E with such straight lines,” or “thank you for sitting with your bottom on the floor and a quiet mouth,” or “nice job asking for a break when you got frustrated.”

As you can imagine, when you’re in the middle of trying to teach a counting lesson, have an afternoon IEP meeting on the back of your mind, and are simultaneously wondering if you remembered to submit attendance that morning, doling out this kind of praise super frequently doesn’t just feel hard…it seems impossible! BUT, it doesn’t have to feel that way!

First, let me zoom out and explain WHY I think behavior-specific praise is so important. Put simply, it works. Research consistently shows that a behavior-specific praise ratio of about 4:1 or 5:1 can drastically increase rates of expected behavior. The evidence for behavior-specific praise is overwhelmingly supportive and it is proven effective for many different types of students.

So, now for the “how” of behavior specific praise, and some tips for how I remind myself to implement it on a consistent basis in my room!

1. Pick CLEAR behaviors you are looking for.

Having clearly defined behaviors you are expecting will make the “specific” part of behavior-specific praise so much easier. You could pick a specific behavior for an entire day or week, or pick different behaviors for different times of the day. Just make sure the behaviors are clearly defined.

If you’ve got a more general behavior like “listening” or “participating,” then I would suggest actually writing an operational definition of your expected behaviors. So, instead of just saying “working hard,” define that for yourself as “sitting in the designated area with eyes on the task at hand, a quiet mouth, and completing the work task.” When you have a very clear picture of what you are praising, you’ll be more likely to provide praise when the time comes. And, your students will know exactly what you are looking for as well!

2. Provide visuals that will remind you to give praise.

We know that visuals work for our students, but they can also work for us as teachers! Make a visual for yourself that will remind you to give behavior-specific praise. This can be anything — it’s only purpose is for you to see it and cue you to give praise. That could mean stickers in your pocket, a PRAISE! magnet or meme on your bulletin board, or even a hand sign you ask your paras to give you during whole group. 

3. Practice + Monitor!

As special education teachers, we are masters at collecting data to see if our students are learning. But when we as teachers try something new, we can also collect data to see if we are learning and improving.

Find a way to monitor and see how frequently your praise rate is and challenge yourself to up it. One potential way to do this is to utilize your paras. Ask a para to spend a 30-minute lesson using a frequency tally of any time you give praise. Have them do this at least once a week and make it your goal to increase it each week! Something about having the clear data is super motivating for me to improve my own “score.”

You could also collect this data yourself with a frequency counter if no staff are available. Another potential option would be to pair the praise with a specific item, like a sticker. Keep a count of how many you began and ended the day with so you know how many you gave out each day. This way, you can challenge yourself to up your praise rates and keep track of them as well.

Happy Praising! Let me know if you try any of these ideas, or if you have any other behavior-specific praise tips. I would love to hear about them in the comments!

Kelsey Smith is a special education teacher for elementary students on a modified curriculum in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to her current teaching job, she spent one year teaching in an inclusive Kindergarten classroom.  Kelsey completed her bachelor’s degree in special education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and is a proud Commodore. Although she is still a newer teacher, she is looking forward to sharing her insights and classroom experiences with the CEC community. She also shares more ideas on her classroom Instagram account, @exceptionalelementary. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time outdoors and eating Mexican food. 

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