Pupils are more likely to focus in class and concentrate on their schoolwork if they are commended rather than reprimanded, according to research published in Educational Psychology.
It comes as a row rages on in Britain about how best to tackle disruptive behaviour by school pupils.
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Teachers have criticised controversial “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies, where a strict approach to discipline is adopted in schools, as being “inhumane” and damaging to children.
But headteachers, who use these schemes, say they reduce bullying, focus pupils and improve results.
The study, which involved more than 2,500 pupils across three US states, found that students spent 20 per cent to 30 per cent longer paying attention to tasks in the classes with the highest praise-to-reprimand ratio (PRR), compared with those where the PRR was the lowest.
In half of the classrooms, teachers followed a behaviour programme in which students are told the social skills they should be showing in lessons and are rewarded for using them.
Teachers used their typical classroom management practices in the other half of the classes.
Paul Caldarella, at Brigham Young University in Utah, who led the research, said: “Praise is a form of teacher feedback, and students need that feedback to understand what behaviour is expected of them, and what behaviour is valued by teachers.”
He added: “Unfortunately, previous research has shown that teachers often tend to reprimand students for problem behaviour as much or more than they praise pupils for appropriate behaviour, which can often have a negative effect on classrooms and student behaviour.”
Dr Caldarella said: “Everyone values being praised and recognised for their endeavours – it is a huge part of nurturing children’s self-esteem and confidence.”
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Research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) last year suggested students could become less disruptive in lessons if teachers greeted them individually at the door of a classroom.
It also found a lack of evidence that “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies have an impact.
Members of the National Education Union (NEU) have warned that strict regimes, such as the use of isolation booths as a form of punishment, can have a “detrimental” effect on children’s mental health.
But Tom Bennett, the government school behaviour tsar, believes strict discipline approaches – like handing out detentions to pupils for being late or for forgetting homework – have a place in schools.
On the new findings, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The benefit of praising good behaviour is well known but it is an approach which requires care.
“If it is overused it can become meaningless and ineffective. And it is important that pupils are clear when behaviour is unacceptable.
“As with everything, it is a question of using this approach in a sensible and balanced manner, and teachers are very good at doing exactly that.”