Students who need positive feedback the most get it the least, study says

The ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback in the classroom is supposed to be 3-1. In practice, teachers hit that mark with some students but not with others, says a new study of 56 K-5 teachers in the southwestern U.S.

Students at high risk for emotional and behavioral disorders experienced a 4-8 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback in this study while students at low risk for EBD experienced a 3-1 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback.

“Prolonged overexposure to negative feedback from teachers functions as part of a detrimental cycle that can result in habitual negative interactions and relationships for students at risk of developing EBD,” the researchers write Preventing School Failure.

“The lasting effect of these experiences on students has been related to lower academic scores, deficits in social skills, and high risk of school failure and later adjustment problems.”

Instead of using negative feedback with students, teachers need to provide positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, according to the study.

How do you increase the amount of positive feedback to negative feedback?  The researchers recommend making teachers more aware of the actual ratio in their classrooms and offering professional development opportunities to increase positive feedback.  Peer coaching also has been shown to be an effective strategy.

For the study, trained researchers did 10 20-minute observations of each of the 56 teachers (for a total of 200 minutes each) and coded negative and positive statements and actions.  Students in the schools had been screened as high-risk and low-risk students with the Student Risk Screening Scale. For the study, one student from the high-risk pool and one from the low-risk pool were randomly selected as target students in each classroom. There were a total of 112 student participants in the study.

In the first phase of the study to collect baseline data, researchers observed 2 20-minute sessions in each classroom to determine the teachers’ typical use of feedback. During baseline data collection the average ratio of positive to negative feedback for general students was 1:1.

“Is Positive Feedback a Forgotten Classroom Practice? Findings and Implications for At-Risk Students,” by Katie Sprouls et al., Preventing School Failure, September 2015, Volume 59, Number 3, pp. 153-160.

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