How To Praise Students And Influence Behavior

How To Praise Students And Influence BehaviorWhen I was a new teacher many years ago, I was told by a veteran colleague that the school’s principal valued praise above everything else.

So when the boss walked through the door for my first formal observation, I started throwing around praise like a dog trainer with milk bones.

Wow, great answer, Jason!

Amazing work, Jessica! I’m blown away!

Gimme a high five, Theo! Way to go!

I’ve since discovered that this is a common belief in education; that the bigger, the more frequent, and the more over-the-top the praise is, the better.

But for most situations, excessive praise isn’t the way to go.

Here’s why:

  • It’s not meaningful to students.
  • It lowers expectations.
  • It doesn’t change behavior.
  • It’s so prevalent that it has become humdrum to students.

A Better Way To Praise

For praise to be effective, for it to ignite motivation, influence behavior, and steer students toward excellence, it must be meaningful. It must stir something inside their hearts that makes them want to get better.

Here are four keys to make sure that your praise hits its mark:

1. Make it private.

Giving praise privately is more effective than doing it in front of the class. Yes, there are moments when public recognition is appropriate. But nine times out of ten, it’s best to keep it between the two of you.

2. Make it subtle.

Small gestures of praise are powerful. Eye contact and a smile from across the room. A note folded over and left waiting on a student’s desk. A hushed, “I knew you could do it.” These small, subtle commendations feel less like praise and more like sharing a special, albeit quiet, celebratory moment.

3. Make it worthy.

Praise won’t have meaning to your students if they don’t deserve it. Only offer praise when you notice them doing something that is beyond what is a common classroom expectation. Watch for students working harder, performing better, or going out of their way to help their classmates.

4. Make it sincere.

Praise won’t have its desired effect unless you’re genuinely proud of your student(s). If you don’t feel it in your heart, they won’t feel it either. Heartfelt praise has the power to motivate and change behavior. It’s the result of seeking excellence, hard work, and altruism in your students, and then letting them know how you feel about it.

More Isn’t Better

If you’ve ever thought that all the praise you give doesn’t make much of difference, you’re right. The more praise you give for things that aren’t worthy of it, and the more frequent and over-the-top it is, the less effective it will be.

When it comes to praising students, more isn’t better.

Private, subtle, worthy, and sincere, though, are.

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25 Responses to How To Praise Students And Influence Behavior

  1. Genie Donahue March 6, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Finally!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am so tired of “Good job!” for every single thing that a child does! Thank you! I can incorporate most of these ideas-no “psychobabble”! Example: “We don’t have bad kids, they just make bad choices”. Translation: Just deal with it because I’m not going to as principle. I repeated this to a younger person-22- and he responded-“Who gave you that psychobabble?” I’m not saying our kids are “bad” they just don’t behave in a way that makes teaching and learning enjoyable. Thanks for the help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Jeff Saavedra March 11, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Great article Michael. Training up students to set goals based on intrinsic motivation plays a huge role in adulthood. With our society’s entitlement attitude, it is refreshing to read an article about modeling to students to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

    • Michael Linsin March 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

      Thanks Jeff!

  3. lana terrell May 15, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    great advice!!!!

  4. levi December 18, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    just what I needed. Thanks for your practical and straight articles.

    • Michael Linsin December 19, 2012 at 8:23 am #

      You’re welcome, Levi!


  5. sharlene December 29, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I have being using praise in my class and I have being seeing some improvements. In some aspects the improvements are slow but, I am committed to the process. One student at a time

  6. veneita January 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    I have seen where praise is effective within my classroom.

  7. Maxine Craigie January 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Offering praise to learners through daily interactions should be spontaneous. However, one should be mindful of the guidelines to be observe when offering praise . I appreciate this post.

  8. Shelleann January 20, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    I find this article to be quite useful. Previously, I struggled with ways to praise my students as I that each time I praise then they would start regressing in whatever I praised them for. The article provides useful and practical ways to praise students. I will certainly use the tips above.

  9. Jennifer October 19, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    I work in a school where everyone gives candy and rewards for good behavior (except me). Coming from a Montessori background, I don’t believe treats and gifts work in the long run. It’s a struggle though because they are always looking for candy from me when they do something right. I feel bad for a second, but then I remember that their behavior is a clear picture as to why I do not give rewards. How in the word do I teach them internal motivation in a world driven by “give me and I’ll do it”?

    • Michael Linsin October 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

      Hi Jennifer,

      We have many, many articles on the website that address this issue. Here is a good place to start: 8 Ways To Fuel . . .


  10. Linda Bell July 25, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    I really enjoyed the articles you provided. I will use some of your strategies this year. I truly know spoke students are difficult to deal with, but with practicing some of your techniques students earn and give respect for themselves as well as their peers and the teacher.

    • Michael Linsin July 25, 2014 at 10:14 am #

      Good to hear, Linda! I’m glad you found us.


  11. Kendall White August 4, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Sincere praise goes a long way! Thanks for the article.

    • Michael Linsin August 4, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      You’re welcome, Kendall!


  12. Matthew Nollkamper July 7, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    Positive reinforcement is dramatic to allowing these adolescents to realize they are doing the correct thing.

  13. Judy Jordan September 5, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    I have not yet purchased your book “to much praising” however: I do concur. I find that some of my colleagues praise students that are badly behaved in the hopes their behavior will change. No brainer. They are then rewarded for unacceptable behaviors and those that truly do deserve it, do not get it (from higher ups I mean) Principal’s???

    I have mentioned on many occasions “you cannot praise bad behavior as that reinforces it and does not offer any insentive for the child to change his or her intrinsic behavior”

    Alas, few listen but I know what I do. Thank you Michael.
    JK J

    • Michael Linsin September 5, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

      Hi JKJ,

      It’s my pleasure! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. 🙂