featured image for post of teacher high-fiving student and giving behavior-specific praise

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a strategy you could always have in your back pocket that worked for improving nearly any appropriate behavior you want to see with almost any student? Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Well, there is no silver bullet for behavior, no practice guaranteed to produce positive outcomes.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something. That said, there are some practices that generally benefit the vast majority of students.  That produce improvements—not perfection—in student behavior. 

Behavior-specific praise is one such practice that has decades of evidence showing benefits for a wide range of students. It’s just one of those things that often works. There’s no guarantee, of course. but students often respond very well to this practice.

The reality is, though, behavior-specific praise very rarely occurs in the typical classroom for the average student. Let alone for students with challenging behavior. Even just general praise itself is quite rare. And for those students with challenges, those students with labels like emotional disturbance or a behavior disorder, usually they get far more reprimands and negative feedback.

What is behavior-specific praise?

Behavior-specific praise is simply specific positive feedback that includes exactly which behavior a student was doing appropriately.  General praise, which is more common,  communicates affirmation to the student that they’ve done something well but not what that thing is (ex. “Good job!” “Great work!”  👍).  Just adding a bit more information makes a big impact on student behavior (ex. “Good job following the voice level!” “Great job staying on task!”  👍+” You followed my directions!”)

Praise is a form of positive social attention that works on the principle of reinforcement.  That is, when praise is reinforcing, it increases the likelihood the student will do more of the praised behavior in the future. Most students respond well to positive attention from their teachers, so praise can be a very simple—yet powerful —practice for promoting great student behavior.

For many students, any attention is good attention. Even when it seems harsh, punitive, negative. It turns out attention of any kind can shape student behavior. And counterintuitively, negative teacher attention often acts as a sort of reward for misbehavior and leads to more of it in the future.

image of a cow mooing

For example, I once had a student who was constantly making noises in class (especially animal noises like mooing…I mean seriously obscene mooing—like a heifer in heat!).  At some point, a staff member just couldn’t take it anymore. On his way out of class, she cornered him and wouldn’t let him leave and yelled at him until he cried.  You’d think this kind of intensely  negative experience would have punished the last moo out of him forever.  Drained it out of him with his tears.  But no, guess what he was talking about later in the hall, and in the cafeteria, and on the bus, and everywhere he went the next school day.  You got it—how awesome that was to really push that staff member’s buttons.  And yeah, he brought out the full barnyard later in class

By using behavior-specific praise in response to appropriate behavior instead, teachers can provide the social attention students desire while encouraging behaviors they want to see in class.  Essentially, teachers get the behaviors to which we pay the most attention.  Which makes behavior-specific praise a powerful tool to have at the ready.

What behavior problems can behavior-specific praise help with?

Behavior-specific praise is remarkably flexible and can be applied to a wide range of desired behaviors.  As long as you can see when the student engages in desired behavior and you’re intentional to provide specific positive feedback, you could target nearly any behavior you want to see more of. You can also address inappropriate behavior by providing behavior-specific praise when the student engages in appropriate alternatives or achieves goals to reduce their own inappropriate behavior.

For example, behavior-specific praise has been used to improve things like staying on-task , engagement in instruction, following directions, correct academic responding, work accuracy, and work completion.  And correspondingly to reduce problematic behavior like disruptions, off-task behavior, and rule violations.

Is behavior-specific praise an evidence-based practice? 

Lemon being squeezed into empty glass

Hint of Lemon

In these two articles, the researchers systematically reviewed the quality and nature of the evidence base for behavior-specific praise across 50 year of research. They examined results from 57 studies of behavior-specific praise including 1,947 students.  They found an overall positive impact (specifically, large effects) of teacher-delivered behavior-specific on a variety of targeted outcomes, such as reducing inappropriate behaviors (e.g., disruption, disengagement, elopement) and improving appropriate behaviors (e.g., engagement, compliance).

Ennis, R. P., Royer, D. J., Lane, K. L., & Dunlap, K. D. (2020). Behavior-specific praise in pre-K–12 settings: Mapping the 50-year knowledge baseBehavioral Disorders45, 131-147.

Royer, D. J., Lane, K. L., Dunlap, K. D., & Ennis, R. P. (2019). A systematic review of teacher-delivered behavior-specific praise on K–12 student performanceRemedial and Special Education40, 112-128.

Characteristics of effective behavior-specific praise

To make an impact on student behavior, effective behavior-specific praise includes several characteristics. Effective behavior-specific praise is:

  • Contingent.  Given conditionally upon a student’s performance of a desired behavior. This helps students to make a clear association between appropriate behavior and positive teacher attention, increasing the probability that they will behave more appropriately in the future.
  • Specific.  The teacher explicitly identifies the appropriate behavior the student has performed and may also provide feedback about the student’s performance. This specific information is a key ingredient for behavior change that is often left out of the more commonly used general praise (ex. “Good job!”).
  • Immediate.  Occurs quickly after an appropriate behavior or response (ideally within a few seconds). This may be especially important when a student is learning a new skill, working on a difficult assignment, or has a history of behavior problems. When behavior-specific praise is delayed, students may not make the connection between the positive attention and their behavior, or they may even resort to inappropriate behaviors to get immediate attention.
  • Individualized.  Should be genuine and honest, delivered with a sincere tone and content that fits teachers’ personalities as well as customized to the needs of the student.
  • Frequent.  Behavior-specific praise tends to occur at very low rates in the average school, so it is ideal to increase its rate of delivery to gain the maximum benefit. While there isn’t strong evidence in favor of a specific ratio of praise to reprimands, strong evidence suggests students with challenging behavior usually receive far more reprimands and desperately need higher rates of behavior-specific praise.

How to implement behavior-specific praise

Behavior-specific praise can be used organically throughout the school day with any student, or it can be implemented systematically for specific students following a few simple steps:

  1. Identify the desired behavior you want to improve.  Focus on a specific appropriate behavior that’s a high priority for you to improve.  You can move on to other behaviors once you’ve experienced success around your biggest priority.
  2. Intentionally observe the student to notice when the desired behavior occurs.  It’s very important to “catch the student being good” when it happens so you’ll be prepared to respond quickly.
  3. Provide behavior-specific praise immediately after the student engages in desired behavior.  Responding soon after the student does what you want—ideally with a few seconds—is important to the success of this practice.
  4. Monitor the impact of behavior-specific praise on the student’s behavior over time. Data, especially when graphed, will help you discern more objectively whether behavior-specific praise is having a positive impact on student behavior.

Video Examples of Behavior-Specific Praise

Elementary Behavior-Specific Praise Example – IRIS Center
High School Behavior-Specific Praise Example – IRIS Center
The Importance of Specificity – PBIS Specific Feedback – Midwest PBIS Network
Verbal Acknowledgement – Behavior-specific Praise Examples – CIBRS
Building Connections with Behavior-Specific Praise – CPRE Knowledge Hub
Is Praise a Generalized Conditioned Reinforcer? – Hacking Applied Behavior Analysis

Behavior-Specific Praise Examples and Resources

screenshot of ci3t professional learning page
Ci3T Intervention Library
Praise Training PowerPoint
thumbnail of example behavior-specific praise statements document
Example Praise Statements

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center
Behavior-Specific Praise in the Classroom Guide – Tennessee Behavior Supports Project

IRIS Center
Fundamental Skill Sheets
Behavior-Specific Praise Fundamental Skill Sheet
Virtual Instruction Behavior-Specific Praise Fundamental Skill Sheet

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations
Starters for Giving Positive Feedback and Encouragement
Acknowledging Positive Behavior What Works Brief
Recommendations for Positive Feedback

Behavior-Specific Praise Tips

  • If you find it difficult to increase your rate of behavior-specific price, it can be beneficial to begin self-monitoring. Use a method to count how often you deliver praise. For example, you might use a tally counter to keep track. Track your performance over time, preferably on a line graph so you can easily see your progress. Set a specific goal for how much praise you want to give in a set. Of time. And even consider giving yourself some sort of reward when you meet your goal. Like a cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop.
  • Vary what you say when you deliver behavior-specific praise.
  • You can combine behavior-specific praise with other reinforcement strategies. For example, if you’re using a token economy, it’s helpful to pair token delivery with praise. This sets you up for success when it’s time to start fading out tokens. You’ll be able to switch over to behavior specific praise alone.
  • Some students may not respond well to publicly delivered behavior-specific praise, so it can be helpful to deliver it privately or through a praise note.

Behavior-Specific Praise FAQ

There’s no need to pretend to be someone you’re not to engage in effect behavior practices. So you don’t have to develop a special handshake and dance move with every student. And you don’t have to start using fluffy language or take on any other affectations.

It’s actually better to be authentic and genuine when you provide behavior-specific praise to students. So you can think about what language and style works best for you as long as you keep the key ingredients of behavior-specific praise: some form of acknowledgement + identifying the specific behavior you saw.

A common concern raised about praising children is that it damages their intrinsic motivation, causing them to come reliant on external motivators just to do typically expected behavior. This concern is often expanded to include things like giving children gold stars and participation trophies.

This is the subject of quite a bit of research, and it can be difficult to understand all the findings. In brief, though, this concern turns out to be a myth in most cases. External rewards and acknowledgement actually increase intrinsic motivation for children, especially for those who most need it.

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