Teachers’ praise notes to middle schoolers linked to drop in discipline referrals

iStock_000020259358XSmallWhen middle school teachers write praise notes to students about their positive behaviors, there are fewer office discipline referrals (ODRs) in the school, reports a study in Preventing School Failure.

The researchers examined use of teacher praise notes that reinforced the appropriate use of social skills in a school in the western part of the U.S. that was in the third year of implementing a schoolwide positive behavior support (PBS) model.

“Just as a student could be expected to successfully complete a long division math problem only after specific and directed instruction in long division, students who have had direct instruction in social skills are more likely to enact those skills, thereby meeting the expectations of the adults in the school,” the authors report. “When the student displays the newly learned social skills, peers and adults should respond positively, thereby reinforcing the desirable behavior.”

Participants in the study, which was conducted over 2 consecutive school years, were 70 teachers (48 women, 22 men) and 1,809 6th and 7th-grade students (51% boys, 49% girls) in a secondary school where approximately 39% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch; the school had limited ethnic diversity. Teachers were asked to teach social skills lessons during 1st-period classes and to praise students when they effectively demonstrated these skills.

Teacher incentives to write notes

“The results showed that praise notes and ODRs had a significant negative correlation: As praise notes increased, rates of ODR decreased,” the researchers report. They stress that the relationship is a correlation not one of cause and effect. Other factors that could have contributed to a decrease in ODRs include social skills instruction or administrators’ growing skill in responding to behaviors leading to ODRs.

During the first 7 months of the intervention, teachers were writing too few notes, 0-2 praise notes per 100 students per day, researchers report. To increase the number of praise notes, teachers received reinforcements and gift certificates to local restaurants when they reached benchmark numbers of notes (e.g. 25, 60, 100, 150). Praise notes also were placed in a box for drawings for prizes during faculty meetings.

In the first 7 months, teachers wrote an average of 0.88 notes per day per 100 students. The rate increased dramatically to an average of 5.91 notes per day per 100 students. Over the 2-year study, teachers wrote 14,527 praise notes and 2,143 ODRs were recorded.

About 28% of students received one or more ODRs. Students with ODRs received an average of 5.2 praise notes per day per 100 students, whereas students with no ODRs received 7.5 praise notes per day per 100 students. Teachers were made aware of those students who had not yet received a praise note and were encouraged to watch for positive behaviors by those students.

Teachers received instruction about giving praise at the beginning of the year, including reminders that praise should be delivered sincerely and that praise notes should reinforce behavioral expectations.

Goal is to reinforce use of social skills

“Some teachers expressed concerns that they were being encouraged to write notes to students with behavior problems, whereas a few students with appropriate behaviors may have been overlooked,” the researchers write. “Other teachers opined that only exemplary students deserved the recognition.”

Teachers were reminded that the purpose of the notes was to reinforce the use of social skills that were being taught weekly in the classrooms.

One of the challenges of the project, researchers write, was tracking notes and determining which students had not received them and which teachers had not written them. In other schools, parent volunteers could assist in working with the data. A praise not initiative could be part of a data-gathering and analysis project for a math or statistics course, they suggest.

The researchers provide the following lessons learned for schools interested in using written praise notes in their middle schools:

  • Provide teachers with instruction on effective praise. >li>Share teachers’ personal stories of how praise notes made a dif ference in emails or faculty meetings.
  • Give teachers specific feedback about the number of note they’ve written, the names of students who have and have not received notes. This increases teach ers’ awareness.
  • Review praise notes and ODR data with teachers to demonstrate the possible effect on student behavior.
  • Give teachers reinforcement for writing praise notes and offer gift certificates to increase the number of praise notes written.

This intervention seems to be most effective as part of a larger effort to implement PBS and teach students social skills, the authors write.

“Using Teacher-Written Praise Notes to Promote a Positive Environment in a Middle School,” by Julie Peterson Nelson et al., Preventing School Failure, 2009, Volume 54, Number 2, pp. 119-125.

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