Doing One Thing to Increase Student Engagement: The Power of Praise

By Butler Knight, Ed.S.

Over 40 percent of high school students may be at risk of dropping out of school before earning their high school diplomas (Lessard, Fortin, Marcotte, Potvin, & Royer, 2009).  Even grimmer, in the 2001-2002 school year, students with emotional and behavioral disabilities accounted for 61.2 percent of students who did not graduate from high school (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs, 2007). 

According to Stout and Christenson (2009), these harsh realities do not occur as a result of one event, but are the inevitable outcome of a series of critical events that foster disengagement from school.  Social background risk factors coupled with the educational experiences of low grades and test scores, retention, absenteeism, disciplinary problems, and poor teacher-student relationships contribute to these events.   Teachers cannot change variables such as social demographics and family circumstances that play into the process of disengagement, but they can cultivate caring relationships with students that promote social-emotional and academic competence (Mihalas, Morse, Allsopp, & McHatton, 2009).

Jennifer has been teaching students with emotionally disabilities for 20 years.  When I enter her classroom, I see her circulating among her students with a hole-punch in hand, praising them repeatedly for such things as raising their hands to speak, using kind words, working on the assigned task until finished, and using the correct voice level within their small groups.  On each student's desk is a card the size of a credit card with a string of baseballs printed around the periphery. 

Jennifer consistently returns to Jonathan's desk, praises him for using kind words and the correct voice level, and then punches a baseball in his card.  Jonathan grins with pleasure at his achievement and his teacher's recognition. 

Jennifer tells me later that she had recognized Jonathan as a student whose poor impulse control, hyperactivity and inattention, and aggressiveness had impaired his relationships with teachers and students alike.  For Jennifer, however, it is students like Jonathan whom she loves to teach.  She said, "I knew that it would be necessary to punch that card until my hand fell off in order to change Jonathan's behavior.  You see, Jonathan's learned behavior is like a boulder.  His disruptiveness and aggression have pushed teachers and students away and solidified a shared belief that what made Jonathan significant were his skills at being a troublemaker.  It takes a lot of praise and punching that card to reinforce the prosocial skills he ultimately needs to be successful in every social environment."

Histories of negative student-teacher interactions that result from problem behaviors such as Jonathan's often create contexts that are not supportive of appropriate behavior or instructional activities  (Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver, & Wehby, 2010).  In order to establish classroom environments that encourage appropriate behavior, Partin et al. recommend the use of contingent praise to increase positive behavior and reduce problem behavior.  They offer the following criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of the use of praise statements: 

  1. Is the praise contingent on and explicitly tied to the behaviors desired of all students within the class?
  2. Do the praise statements offer useful feedback to the student on the correct demonstration of the desired behaviors?
  3. Do the praise statements increase the opportunity for meaningful and caring interactions between the teacher and students?
  4. Are the praise statements differentiated to meet the diverse needs and skill levels of students?

As a first step in ensuring they use praise appropriately and sufficiently, teachers can assess the ratio of positive to negative interactions they have with students.  A ratio of at least four positive to one corrective or negative interaction is reported to have the optimal effect on improving learning and behavior (Trussell, 2008).  It is the student's behavior that determines whether the interaction is positive or negative (Sprick & Garrison, 2008).  For example, when Jonathan blurts out an answer to a question rather than raising his hand and the teacher kindly reminds him to raise his hand, this is considered a negative interaction because the student exhibited the negative behavior.  Jennifer, however, paired a specific praise statement such as, "Jonathan, I noticed that you used the kind word of "please" when you asked Jackie to move her things," with the punching of the baseball in his card. 

Teachers can self-assess the ratio of positive to negative interactions or the rate of praise statements using an audiotape recorder.  For example, a 15-minute interval can be taped, and then a 5-minute segment can be transcribed to measure the ratio or frequency of praise words.  By collecting such data over several sessions and transferring the data to a graph, teachers can monitor their use of praise statements and assess its impact on student behavior. Jennifer monitored the frequency of praise statements by examining Jonathan's punch card.  She also periodically invited a peer coach to observe her interactions for both the quality described above and the frequency using a recording sheet. 

Jennifer worked collaboratively with Jonathan's family to behaviorally define the prosocial behaviors they all wanted Jonathan to learn and demonstrate at home and at school.  They used common praise statements to reinforce Jonathan for waiting to speak, using respectful words, and completing an assigned task.  Jennifer used her graph to illustrate the relationship between her positively acknowledging Jonathan's desired behavior and the reduction in disruptive behavior at home and at school. The positive focus of the school-home communications increased Jonathan's family's interest in participating in other school activities and heightened their sense of engagement (Muscott et al., 2008).

 As you reflect on ways to improve student engagement this school year, consider increasing your use of specific and contingent praise as the one thing you will do to build positive relationships with your students and their families.  Explore the resources below to find additional information on the use of praise and ideas for improving student-family partnerships.

 Online Resources to Explore

For more information on the use of praise and positive reinforcement strategies, go to:

 For more information and resources for families, visit:


Lessard, A., Fortin, L., Marcotte, D., Potvin, P., & Royer, E. (2009). Why did they not drop out?  Narratives from resilient students. The Prevention  Researcher, 16(3), 21-23.

Mihalas, S., Morse, W., Allsopp, D., & McHatton, P. (2009). Cultivating caring relationships between teachers and secondary students with emotional and behavioral disorders: Implications for research and practice. Remedial and Special Education, 30(2), 108-125.

Muscott, H., Szczesiul, S., Berk, B., Staub, K., Hoover, J., & Perry-Chisholm, P. (2008).  Creating home-school partnerships by engaging families in schoolwide positive behavior supports. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(6), 6-14.

Partin, T., Robertson, R., Maggin, D., Oliver, R., & Wehby, J. (2010). Using teacher praise and  opportunities to respond to promote appropriate student behavior. Preventing School Failure, 54(3), 172-178.

Sprick, R., & Garrison, M. (2008). Interventions: Evidence-based behavioral strategies for individual students. Eugene, OR: Pacific Northwest Publishing.

Stout, K. E., & Christenson, S.L. (2009). Staying on track for high school graduation: Promoting student engagement. The Prevention Researcher, 16(3), 17-20.

Trussell, R. (2008). Classroom universals to prevent problem behaviors. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(3), 179-185.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs. (April, 2006). 26th Annual (2004) Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Vol. 1. Washington D.C.: Author. Retrieved from