Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Effective Use of Contingent Praise with Students Who Have Behavioral Issues

                I have never been ask to file a complaint on behalf of the special education needs of a child identified with behavioral issues whose teacher skillfully and consistently gives the child verbal praise contingently to increase the child’s appropriate behaviors.  In contrast, I am frequently contacted by parents of children who are concerned that the behavior procedures used by their child’s school/teacher have decreased the child’s behavioral performance, and/or resulted in a series of disciplinary actions.
                An examination of these situations usually indicates that the child’s school or teacher primarily relies upon control and reactive strategies to deal with problem behaviors, and delays incentives (“positive reinforcements”) until the student has “earned” them.  Under those circumstances, it is no surprise to find that the student has begun to manifest “counter-control” behaviors, and the teacher and student are engaged in ongoing and serial power struggles.  These cases demonstrate that despite more than fifty years of research, many educators have not learned that control and reactive strategies, and delayed reinforcement procedures, are vastly less successful in shaping, increasing, and maintaining appropriate social and academic behaviors in students who have behavioral problems at school.
                It is perplexing that, given the extensive base of empirical support for the use of contingent teacher praise in increasing appropriate student behaviors that so many educators have not learned how to competently use this highly effective means of assisting students whose behaviors interfere with learning.  A 2010 research article published in Preventing School Failure, titled Using Teacher Praise and Opportunities to Respond to Promote Appropriate Student Behavior (article is located at  provided that teacher attention to students with behavioral issues comes in the form of high rates of teacher reprimands for inappropriate behaviors, and that students with the most aggressive behaviors have the highest rates of teacher reprimands and the lowest rates of positive teacher attention -  even when they appropriately comply with teacher commands.  
                The authors of the above-mentioned article point out that regardless of a student’s age or disability, teacher use of contingent praise has been shown to increase a variety of appropriate student behaviors and academic skills, including following directions, engagement in instruction, on-task behavior, correct academic responding, and work accuracy and completion.  They noted and cited supporting authorities who have found that the skilled use of contingent praise has been repeatedly shown to increase positive behavior while simultaneously decreasing and disruptive problem behavior, and that teacher praise combined with decreased attention to problem behavior lead to decreases in talking outs and arguing with teacher requests as well as other disruptive behavior.
                When considering the lack of a particular student’s progress on behavioral goals, as professionals, teachers should be aware of the amount of attention they are giving to desired behaviors and to inappropriate ones.  As a component a teaching improvement program, some schools might employ procedures like those set out in the above-cited article, as a self-monitoring exercise during which teachers review a series of 15 minute recordings of their classes, and record data on their use of commands, reprimands, and contingent reinforcement with all students or with a particular student.  

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