In my fourth year of teaching, I had a lightbulb moment. Positive praise 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 effort on the part of a fourteen year old who probably just wants to sleep until noon and then watch TV.
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
- 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 (prior to taking maternity leave and starting my TPT store) 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, 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.
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 the 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 it’s not all the time)
- using positive praise postcards is quick and easy so I (and 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:
You can deliver off-the-cuff positive praise in the classroom whenever you think of it and or think it’s merited. I use this strategy as well.
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. To get started, find some reward postcards that you like. I have some on my TPT store (you can use this link to download a few freebies and this link to buy the full set if you like them). But you may find that you wish to create your own or find others online.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Have a routine around using positive praise postcards as a reward for students is essential 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.
Track who has received a card to ensure each student gets one throughout the course of a semester. I wrote a ‘P’ in my attendance roll when I wrote postcards and checked my roll before writing the postcards each afternoon.
Praise can be for SMALL things: consistently arriving to class on time, attempting all homework, or kindness to peers etc.
Every positive interaction you can have with students puts money in the relationship bank. Sending praise through positive postcards is a positive interaction.
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
- Scholarly articles: 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.