What’s the best reward for students? Is positive praise for students effective? Or are chocolates, candy, or cuddles faster and cheaper? Ok, maybe not cuddles. Unless you’re a kindergarten teacher and you are subjected to cuddles without your consent.

In all seriousness, how can teachers reward students for good behavior and work ethic in a way that is not a food reward? With up to 86% of US teachers using candy and food rewards, it can be a struggle to find rewards that are not only as effective, but also easy, as handing out candy. 

Today we’re going to look at an alternative idea to reward students in the classroom – positive praise for students. We’ll look at what it is, why it works, and how you can easily (and cheaply!) use it as a classroom management tool.

In my fourth year of teaching… 

I had a lightbulb moment. Positive praise for students works.

I should’ve known: I’d had professional development sessions on it and read about it in teaching manuals. But somehow it didn’t sink in until I had a student approach me and thank me for sending home a positive praise postcard as a reward for her attendance.

She was a sweet but quiet girl. I imagine she often went unnoticed by teachers because she wasn’t the brightest, or funniest, or loudest, or most talented at anything in particular. But she showed up to class – every day for the whole term.

So, I sent a postcard home because I thought that was impressive. For an entire 10-week term, she was in class every day.

That might not sound impressive. But consider: she didn’t get sick, she didn’t nag her parents to let her stay home from school, and she didn’t ‘accidentally’ miss the bus to school even once. 

This requires serious effort on the part of a fourteen year old who probably just wants to sleep until noon and then watch TV or scroll TikTok until her parents get home. 

I noticed. I sent the postcard. And her response let me know that she felt seen.

What is positive praise?

While I couldn’t find an exact definition for positive praise, the research suggests that to be effective and positive, praise needs to be:

  • specific (to a student, situation, or behavior demonstrated)
  • timely (given quickly after the praise-worthy event)
  • given for students’ efforts, progress, or behaviors instead of abilities or talents
  • sincere
  • sensitive to students’ cultural or personal preferences
  • avoid comparisons to other students
  • relate to already-established expectations for school/classroom behavior

I started using positive praise postcards as a reward when I worked at my last school because the school had developed a school-wide plan to create postcards that reinforced the school rules.

The idea was that when teachers noticed students following the rules or demonstrating other praise-worthy behavior, they would send a postcard home.

Once I realized how effective using positive praise was, I attempted to use the praise postcards systematically because they were a fast, efficient, private, and free (at my school) way to praise and reward my students.

Go here if you want to find out how I worked sending positive praise postcards into my routine so that it became effortless.

Why is positive praise the best reward for students?

Positive praise, and in particular the postcards, were new to me at the time. But they quickly became one of my favorite strategies to develop positive relationships with students. I think that using positive praise postcards works for a variety of reasons:

  • positive praise rewards students who are doing the right thing (even if they’re not consistently doing the right thing, you can notice students when they do the right thing)
  • using positive praise postcards is quick and easy so you can do it consistently
  • they allow you to use praise strategically – you can pick which students get them and what behaviors you reward to foster the types of behaviors you want more of in your classroom
  • using positive praise postcards reminds you as a teacher of the things your students are doing right, which keeps you in a positive frame of mind
  • they build rapport because they show students and parents that you notice when students doing the right thing
  • it reinforces that being a good student requires appropriate behavior so that everyone in the class can learn
  • they allow you as a teacher to give positive praise to every student, not just the ones who excel academically
  • positive praise postcards help you praise shy students who might otherwise be embarrassed to be praised in front of the class (especially in middle and high school)
  • they foster a growth mindset

How to reward with positive praise for students:

You can deliver off-the-cuff positive praise in the classroom whenever you think of it or think it’s merited. Most teachers do this privately with students when they are walking around the class during individual work, or as a cue to get nearby students to notice what they should be doing during whole-class instruction.

But in my opinion, praise postcards are the best way to strategically and habitually practice positive praise.

They are easy to use – just pick the postcard, write a quick note to the student/parent, address it, stamp it, and send it.

You may even be super lucky (like I was) and have school admin assistants who can address, stamp, and send them.

Steps for using postcards:

  1. Find some reward postcards you like. (You can use this link to download a few freebies from my TPT store or this link to buy the full set). Or find others online or create your own.
  2. Next, print out copies at a photobooth (I printed mine out at Kmart for 10c each). Or order them online from a website such as Snapfish or Vistaprint. When I made my own postcards, I’d print out 10-20 copies of each postcard. But when I worked at a school with them, I’d grab a handful from the school office at the start of the week.
  1. Write and address 3-4 of them at the end of the day before leaving for home. Be intentional about which students are receiving them and why students are receiving them. I usually tried to do one student per class each day. During those stressful weeks where you have assessment coming in and a zillion meetings, leave it until the end of the week and pick 4-5 students from each class and write out a bulk lot. But it’s easier to do 3-4 each day than 20-30 each week.
  1. The next morning, drop them into the school office when you check your pigeon hole/work cubby. I was lucky that the school would stamp and send them with outgoing mail.

If your school won’t address, stamp, and send postcards, print a list of students’ names and addresses. Pin or tape it near your desk so you can quickly find students’ addresses at the end of the day.

Then, write and address them at the end of the day and drop them in with the outgoing mail when you head to the office/work cubby/pigeon hole in the morning.

Remember, having a routine…

desk with postcards and laptop

Around using positive praise postcards as a reward for students is essential if you wish to do it consistently. 

And for the strategy to work and help you build relationships and manage your classroom effectively, you need to do it consistently.

Ensure you track…

Who has received a card to ensure each student gets one throughout the course of the semester. I wrote a ‘P’ in my attendance roll when I wrote postcards, highlighted it,  and checked my roll before writing the postcards each afternoon. That way I could make sure that all students got a postcard at some point during the semester. 

This also forced me to think about positive things students were doing even if they weren’t behaving in the way that I wanted them to behave. Were they on time all week? Did they help someone else in class print an assignment? Did they stay in their seat the whole lesson?

Positive praise for students can be for small things

Notice when students do those small, positive things and let them know that you notice. It absolutely helps build rapport.

Every positive interaction you can have with students puts money in the relationship bank. Sending praise through positive postcards is a positive interaction.

positive praise puts money in the relationship bank

Want to learn more? Quick reads…

  • Understood.org has a quick article about praise and printable reminder lists to help make it a habit. 
  • Intervention Central has a good explanation about effective praise and a few scripted examples of ways to give praise in different situations. 
  • ThoughtCo explains how to give effective praise so it can increase student motivation

Want the research-based deets?

  • This article examines the training methods used to train teachers to use positive praise. It suggests that more research is needed to evaluate the relative effectiveness of training programs as well as characteristics of praise (eg: private/public). 
  • This article reviewed the effects of praise training for teachers on the disruptive behaviors and academic engagement of their students. It found that praise was an effective and feasible strategy to manage classroom behaviors. 
  • This article defines and explores the strategy of positive attending on student behavior. 
  • This article explores the effect of teacher praise on students with severe disabilities and concludes that praise may not be an effective strategy for this population of students. But it suggests further research is necessary to evaluate when and for whom teacher praise is an effective practice.

Ready to start with positive praise for students in your class?

Click here for a few freebie positive praise postcards or here for the full set.

Last updated 10/03/24