What About Praise?
Which do you believe is more effective for changing behavior, punishment or reward? Sometimes neither.
We often create our beliefs inappropriately because we see them affirmed without thinking why they were supported. Think of a common classroom interaction. A student misbehaves, the teacher snaps angrily, doles out a punishment, and the misbehavior stops. The teacher’s motivator neurotransmitter dopamine raises a bit, signally, “Punishment works. Do it again.” The teacher’s punishment-is-effective belief appears to work and this belief garners an instant verification. Many teachers find themselves trapped in this unfortunate contingency. If they punish students when behavior is poor, the act of punishment is often rewarded by a subsequent improvement in student performance, even if punishment is ineffective.
The student experiences this differently.
The Timid Student
For this student, the motivator neurotransmitter dopamine level drops a bit, signally, “Don’t do that again. Be weary.” Now the student is more anxious in class and less likely to ask the teacher for assistance when needed. After a punishment, the student’s attention becomes split between an interest in learning and a fear of being reprimanded again. Research tells us that students who feel emotionally safe in class, and those showing a willingness to approach their teachers, generally perform better overall.
The Repeat Offender
If this student feels unfairly penalized (often the case), they welcome this attention. After all, they get the satisfaction of getting under the teacher’s skin. Expect more misbehavior or passive-aggressive resistance from this student (refusing to do work, loud sighs, acting bored).
What About Praise?
Empty praise, “I like it when you sit quietly” externalizes rewards and creates praise junkies. Students get the message that to sit quietly is to please the teacher.
Children regularly try out new behaviors to see what works and what doesn’t. Think of misbehavior this way: I ask you to throw a dart with your non-dominant hand. If you are lucky and score near the bullseye, your second attempt will probably not be as good. If your first attempt was horrible, your second attempt will probably improve. This would happen regardless of being punished or praised. Students experimenting with behavior, like you throwing darts, just need feedback. Allow students the dignity and autonomy of learning from their experiences (as long as they aren’t dangerous or malicious).
What should you do instead?
Try instead, “I see you getting ready to learn by sitting quietly.” If they aren’t sitting quietly say instead, “I see you eagerly talking as you get ready to learn. Now it’s time to listen.” State the behavior, steer it toward your goal, and show how it benefits the student. There are myriads of ways to acknowledge good behavior effectively without praising it. “Sitting quietly helps you focus,” or “Holding onto your thoughts helps your classmates think.” Comments like these give both formative feedback while simultaneously noting beneficial behaviors. That’s intrinsic nourishment for a growing brain.
Similarly, minor misbehavior requires feedback, not punishment. Example: Students are working in groups but one group constantly chats. You walk toward them with your hand extended in the stop signal mode. If they stop, your work is done, if they continue, you move each student to a corner of the room to sit alone. If they get this message, your work is done. Put them in groups again the next day. If they don’t get the message, they might be repeat offenders.
It’s much better to negotiate sanctions. “When you sit with your friends and chat instead of listening, it interferes with my concentration and interrupts other students. What should I do, split you up or isolate you? Do you have a better idea?” I’m not so naïve as to believe that this approach always works, but it’s a productive teacher mindset that empowers the students. It encourages a dialog between participants in a shared enterprise: Education.
Note the difference between punishment and natural consequences: Splitting up the group that chats or asking a disruptive student to move may look like a punishment, but it’s genuinely just a natural consequence of (mis)behavior. It becomes punitive when it’s done angrily, arbitrarily, or if the consequence doesn’t fit the offense.
Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.