The Power of Authentic Praise in the Classroom: My Personal Experience

I had a student once, you know the student. The one that pushes buttons, tests boundaries, and always seems to say just the right things to upset you. He was difficult to have in the classroom and a challenge for every teacher, resource aid, and adult that walked the halls of the school. In my attempt to reach this student and use him as a powerful player in the classroom, not a distraction, I found research on praising in a positive, genuine way and the impact it can have on students. 

In short, I found in my research that we should be praising students genuinely, immediately, unexpectedly, and both publicly and privately. It should also be honing in on your own feelings, not said in a general sense. For example, instead of saying, “Good job on your book report” if you phrase it more in a sense of, “I was really impressed by your book report, I can see how hard you worked on it.” it will come across as more personal and elicit more feelings of accomplishment in the student. After coming forward with these findings, I was ready to apply them in my classroom with not only my difficult student but all of my students. 

It started slowly, I gave authentic, specific praise as often as possible, but whole class and individual students. However, I found that it was harder to give this type of praise to the harder students that didn’t seem to naturally follow directions like the rest of the class. 

One day, my particularly hard student (we’ll call him Johnny) was having an especially rough day. On the way out to recess, I saw him shove a notebook I had never seen before into his desk. “Hey Johnny, can I see that really fast?” Instantly he was defensive and hesitant because he was expecting to be reprimanded for it. I reassured him he wasn’t in trouble and just wanted to take a peek at something I found interesting on the cover. 

Right away I saw incredible artwork cover the front. I flipped through a few pages and found sheets and sheets of dedicated time and effort. My initial thought was that if he can spend this much time creating something like this, why isn’t he spending five minutes on his math homework? But then I had to change my thinking. 

“Oh, Johnny. This is absolutely outstanding! Did you create this all on your own? I love the attention to detail you gave this drawing.” 

He instantly was quiet and his cheeks red with embarrassment. I could tell fairly fast that this type of praise was not common for him, he wasn’t sure how to handle it. I knew it was something that needed to become more and more common with my speaking not only to him, but again, every single student I came in contact with. 

I started putting in extra effort into praising my students in an authentic way and started seeing a difference in my students. 

They started trying a little harder. 

They saw the hard work they were putting forth too. 

They started complimenting their peers and even myself in the same way.

Our classroom became an even more enjoyable, positive place. And on top of that, my little Johnny had a different attitude about learning and school in general. He sought to receive praise in his hard work. Don’t get me wrong, we still had struggles and I worked hard to motivate him the rest of the time! But deep down he truly did try to find that encouragement to keep going. He was easier to understand, and I truly found happiness in his drawings, especially when he would create something specifically for me! 

Ideally what I took away from this was that a little more effort in praise can go a long way if we take the time. 

Why I Decided The Clip Chart Wasn’t For Me

Oh, the dreaded clip chart. You know the one I’m talking about. “So-and-so” is being great! Move your clip up! Oh, Jonny, that wasn’t appropriate! Move your clip down!” It’s no secret that teachers have become outraged by these classroom management resources. One quick google search will show you just how unpopular they are. 

The first three articles to come up when googling “Clip Chart”

The first day I walked into the classroom of my long term sub job, I noticed one thing right away on the whiteboard- a clip chart. The public humiliation display. The does-more-harm-than-good tool. I did my best effort to keep the clip chart during my first week taking over the classroom, but I soon realized why it didn’t work. 

  • It was used for negative reinforcement more often than positive reinforcement. It was easier to use it for students misbehaving than to remember to reward those that were behaving. 
  • It didn’t change the behavior of the students who were constantly dropping into the negative. They quickly became numb to it, they didn’t care about moving their clip down, or up for that matter. 
  • I felt like our whole day revolved around the chart. Because I realized how often it was used for the misbehaving kids, I put in extra effort to use it to praise students for good behavior. It took too much time and effort. The best way to manage a classroom is to have an effortless, mindless, mostly positive plan in place. I needed a classroom management plan that was easy and natural for our classroom. 

So what did I do once I realized it wasn’t working? I stopped using it, slowly over time. I moved clips less and less, never making it a big deal or a spectacle that the clip chart was non-existent. I forgot about it and so did the kids. In fact, not a single student ever asked about it after we had fully stopped using it. Even the star students that were always at the top every day didn’t mind me phasing it out, no one wanted their behavior displayed to the entire classroom, including all of our visitors. 

Here’s what we did instead. We started our money unit, so a coin system was easily put in place. Each student had a container for their money and was solely responsible for it. Not very often was I taking pennies from the students, it was used more for positive reinforcement, which made everyone happier. It was incredible the drive the students had to clean up the floor at the end of the day when I would announce, “I have one nickel for every student who brings me ten pieces of trash!” I think we could have won awards for how clean our classroom was each afternoon. The money earned was used to pay for extra bathroom trips, new pencils, and a teacher store at the end of the year. 

We did a group point system on the board. I numbered each group, wrote the numbers on the board, and gave them points for being on time as a team, working together, and having their whole table quiet and ready to learn. It promoted teamwork and gave them an incentive to do better.

What did the point system on the board go towards? Here’s the magic of it- nothing. The points went towards nothing. Once the tallies made it to roughly 10 points per team, I would erase and start over. They were working hard simply for tallies on the board! I had one student ask quietly what the tallies were for. There were plenty of other side conversations happening at the time, so I chose to focus my attention elsewhere. I never heard any questions again after that one incident. 

Since I was teaching first-grade students, passing around a tiny sticker to hard workers was a huge motivation for them. I also kept a box of Cheerios in my cupboard to pass around one Cheerio to quiet, on-task students. After one or two times of doing this, they learned fast. As soon as the box was in my hand to pass them out, every student would be working hard. It amazed me how motivating one piece of cereal can be. 

Clip charts clearly are not a classroom management win. It may work for some and could possibly be excellent personal behavior management tucked away in a desk for one or two students that need it. But as a whole class approach, there are better options out there. Positive reinforcement has been proven to be the most effective for changing behavior, and clip charts do not promote this. Let’s all take a minute to put down the clip chart and pick up a more positive approach for our student’s sake.