Behavior-Specific Praise in the Classroom

As a teacher, you use praise to acknowledge and motivate the good work students do in your classroom every day. 

Did you know that studies show that one strategy to boost behavior in your classroom is to consistently offer behavior-specific praise for your students? Behavior-specific praise has been shown to be a powerful tool to increase not only positive behavior, but also academic success.

Use the information in this article to either implement or refine how you use behavior-specific praise in your classroom:

  • What Is Behavior-Specific Praise?
  • Why use Behavior-Specific Praise?
  • How to incorporate Behavior-Specific Praise in Your Classroom

What is Behavior-Specific Praise? 

Behavior-specific praise is verbally offering praise for a student when they exhibit an expected behavior, and must be...

  • immediate
  • include the student's name
  • and name the specific behavior the student demonstrates.

For example, if a student patiently waits to sharpen their pencil while you give instructions instead of interrupting, you might say, "Janhvi, great job listening and letting others listen to instructions while you were patient at the pencil sharpener." This is behavior-specific praise because instead of saying only, "Thank you, Janhvi" or "Janhvi, good job", you name the specific behavior the student demonstrated.

By praising the expected behavior out loud, you reinforce the behavior not only for the student you praise, but also for all the students in the classroom who hear it. You effectively remind students of a tool for success by calling it out as a model for all to follow.

The formula for behavior-specific praise is: student name + specific behavior demonstrated.

Behavior-specific praise statements vary based on your school's specific expectations, and your students' ages, needs, and learning styles. Below, you'll find some different behavior-specific praise statements for different grade levels.

Behavior-Specific Praise for Elementary School Students

  • Amanda, I’m proud of you for sharing with Diego today.
  • Good job lining up quietly, Jasper! Great work showing that you’re ready to go to lunch.
  • Mei-Li, thank you for silently sitting criss-cross applesauce with your hands folded in your lap on the rug. You are ready for story time.

Behavior-Specific Praise for Middle School Students

  • Kai, thank you for facilitating your group today! You did a good job of encouraging everyone to participate.
  • You did a great job listening to the speaker at today’s assembly, Tigers!
  • Thanks for cleaning up your lab station, Jasmine! It’s awesome that you’re thinking about our lab safety lessons.

Behavior-Specific Praise for High School Students

  • This is a really great outline, Matteo! I really appreciate how you asked questions when you were confused and got it done.
  • Kelly, thanks for letting Nico finish his point before you spoke. You demonstrated it's important to listen and let someone finish their thoughts before taking your turn,
  • Awesome job being group captain today, Dylan! Thanks for clearly documenting and sharing your group's thoughts so all ideas were heard.

Why use Behavior-Specific Praise?

As you know, focusing on positive behaviors to remove negative behaviors has benefits for both you the teacher, and your students.

Benefits for you, the teacher, include:

  • A class built with a positive foundation. Approaching each class proactively looking for and calling out positive behaviors is more hopeful and joyful than waiting for negative behaviors that you must address and punish.
  • Removal of negative behaviors which act as barriers to teaching. By consistently praising positive behaviors when you see them, your class is more likely to perform according to your expectations, which creates more time and space for teaching and learning to happen.

Benefits for students include: 

  • Increased motivation. When students are praised for doing the right thing, they are more likely to continue to seek attention by repeating the positive behavior.
  • Increased confidence. When students are continually reminded of the expectations and ways to succeed in your classroom, they will feel more confident knowing how to succeed both behaviorally and academically.
  • Positive classroom culture. Students will feel safe walking into your classroom where the behavior policy focuses on reinforcing positive contributions to the learning environment.

How to Incorporate Behavior-Specific Praise in Your Classroom

1. Set and Post Classroom Expectations

Before you can praise specific behaviors, be sure your classroom expectations are defined and visible in your room. Classroom expectations provide students with a guide for what behaviors you are looking for in creating a safe, positive, successful learning environment for all. You and your colleagues do any or all of the following to set classroom expectations:

  • At the beginning of a course, collaborate as a class to create a list of about five behaviors that students find help them feel safe and ready for success in a classroom. You could use the core values of your school/district to guide you. Post these expectations somewhere in the classroom for the duration of the year/course. 
  • For each day's lesson/activity, post on your agenda slideshow or on the whiteboard the specific expectations of that activity to remind students. Having these posted will also help you remember to address the specific behavior by name when offering praise.

Posting classroom expectations in the room can serve as a visual reminder to both you and your students. For you, you can use them as a visual guide to deliver behavior-specific praise. For students, they serve as a constant reminder of how to succeed in your classroom.

2. Give Praise Immediately

Consistently scan the classroom and offer behavior-specific praise immediately when you see the expected behavior. For example, when Joachim stays on task and works through a difficult problem, immediately provide praise so that Joachim—and his peers—can use the specific behavior as a model.

3. Use the Behavior-Specific Praise Formula

Remember, when offering behavior-specific praise use the formula: student name + positive behavior observed:

  • Identify the student by name. Instead of providing vague feedback applicable to any student—for example, “Take turns!”— identify which student is performing the appropriate behavior. For example, instead of saying, “Take turns!” you might say, “Thank you for giving Ronan a turn, Ana!” 
  • Name the specific, positive behavior. For example, “Ali, thank you for lining up quickly and quietly.” While general praise—like “Good job!” or “Nice work!”—can be useful, research shows that it’s not as effective as specific praise when it comes to reinforcing positive behavior.

4. Reflect on Your Practice

To reflect on your practice, try tracking the names of the students you offer behavior-specific praise, and how many times you praise them. Having this data will also help you determine any refinements you might need to make. For example, you might identify that you consistently offer behavior-specific praise to the same students in a class. Or, you might determine that you have missed specific students. Finally, behavior-specific praise might be a successful intervention for a student who continually seeks attention using negative behaviors. 

There are several ways to track praise data to reflect on your practice. Feel free to use one of these strategies, or combine more than one in a way that will work for you and your students:

1. Have a class list printed and attached to a clipboard. Place a mark next to a student's name when you offer behavior-specific praise over a specified period of time, such as a week.

2. Create behavior-specific praise badges, tickets, or other printables that contain behavior-specific praise statements. Select the box next to the behavior the student exhibits, and read it out loud before handing it to them. Students can collect a specific number of these badges in their desk or binder to turn in for a reward, such as stickers for younger students, or homework passes for older students.

3. Download Panorama's Behavior Boost app on your phone, and use the seamless interface to digitally track behavior-based praise in your classroom.

Whichever methods you use, after you track this data for a time period you define, you can reconcile it with a student's academic scores, attendance, survey results, and outcomes to analyze the role behavior-specific praise plays in your students' success!