A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Harnessing the power of a positive ratio of interactions
Praising good behavior can have a profound effect on student outcomes
By Cristy Coughlin, Jessica Sprick and Jeremy Resnick | January | February 2024
Issac was a student who was exhibiting aggressive and disruptive behavior. In the morning, he was usually cheerful and could remain on task, but as the day progressed, his behavior would become increasingly out of control — making loud noises, pushing things around, getting out of his seat constantly and moving around the room without permission. When his behavior began to escalate to physical aggression with other students — pushing, kicking and pulling chairs out from under them — the school knew they needed an intervention plan to support Issac in changing his behavior. The school wanted other students to be safe and Isaac to experience more success in school.
They decided to start with a meaningful job that would give Issac a break from the classroom environment in the mid-morning and would give him a sense of purpose and belonging in the school. Issac became the resident “coffee cup collector.” Each morning around 10:15, Issac would collect a cart from the staff lounge and go room to room asking each teacher if they needed their coffee cup collected and washed. Teachers knew to greet Issac with a smile when he entered their room and praise Issac profusely for helping them make sure there were clean cups ready for the next day. Issac’s behavior immediately began to improve.
One of the reasons the administrators hypothesized this intervention was so powerful was because it filled Issac’s bucket with positive interactions from different adults. While there are many different evidence-based behavioral interventions, a critical component of most behavioral intervention plans is increased positive attention. Students must hear positive feedback about incremental growth with new or challenging behaviors so they can know where the line is between what is the expected behavior and what is not appropriate. They also need to know that despite any behavioral struggles, they are a valuable member of the school community who is noticed and cared for.
In this article, we explore ways that adults can use the concept of ratios of interactions (ROIs) as a first, and oftentimes best, strategy to support students in making meaningful behavioral change. Achieving a high ratio of positive interactions means making the conscious effort to interact with every student more frequently when the student is behaving appropriately than when they are behaving inappropriately.
Recognize that adult attention is a valuable commodity. In fact, it is one of the most important and limited commodities in any school environment. Each time you interact positively with a student, whether by greeting them, commenting on one of their interests or providing positive feedback for something the student was doing right, your attention is like putting one dollar in the bank. Each time you must correct a student or give them your attention when they are misbehaving is like withdrawing three dollars. For students who struggle with behavior, it is common that their attention bank account is depleted and they have received far more negative attention than positive. To help change the behavior, the adults need to reframe their interactions and deposit lots of positive attention.
Why are ratios of interactions so powerful?
To further understand why it is so important to increase efforts to ensure positive interactions with your students, consider the following:
Some students are starved for attention. Most teachers have direct experience with students who demand attention and have seen the desperate measures some students will take to get attention. For students who are hungry for attention, the form of attention may not matter. A reprimand for misbehaving may satisfy this student’s desire for attention just as much as positive feedback for behaving responsibly. In fact, the scolding may be even more satisfying because it probably lasts longer and involves greater emotional intensity. While this may seem baffling to the adult brain, for many students, they would prefer to be yelled at than ignored. Some students have also learned they are far more skilled in getting negative attention from adults than positive!
Some students are starved for attention due to circumstances outside of your classroom or school. While you likely cannot control these outside circumstances, it is within your locus of control to ensure you and the other educators in your school actively work to maintain a positive ratio of interactions with these students. These efforts can help students feel a sense of belongingness and meet their needs for attention, acknowledgment and recognition.
The powerful concept of ROI is measurable. You can identify positives and correctives and count the ratio. Adults can set an intention to maintain at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to corrective interactions with every student, but especially with students who have chronic behavioral challenges. In fact, for students who are really struggling with the behavior, this ratio may need to be higher, such as 5:1 or 9:1. You control the ratio in the same way a pilot controls an airplane. When something goes wrong, a pilot has the training to know how to fix it. They adjust the variables — altitude, speed and so on. When student behavior is going badly, you can use your training to adjust the variables. ROI is one of your most powerful tools.
How can you achieve a high ratio of positive to corrective interactions?
Increased positive interactions between teachers and students have profound effects on student outcomes. Research demonstrates that high rates of positive interactions can increase student engagement and decrease inappropriate behavior (Caldarella et al., 2020; Cook et al., 2017; Downs et al., 2019; Sutherland et al., 2000). However, achieving a 3:1 positive to corrective ratio (or better) is not always easy.
In fact, observational studies regularly show that most teachers pay significantly more attention to students’ misbehavior than to their positive behavior (Floress et al., 2018; Jenkins et al., 2015). This is because people are prewired to focus on disruptive, irritating or dangerous stimuli. We tend to pay more attention to behaviors that are inconsistent with our expectations than to desirable, appropriate behaviors that match our expectations for behavior.
Despite this innate tendency to focus on misbehavior, there are many practical steps that teachers or other educators can take to improve their ratios of interaction. For example:
  • Each time you interact with a student engaged in inappropriate behavior, tell yourself that you owe that student three positive interactions.
  • Identify specific times during each day that you will give your student positive feedback on some aspect of their individual behavior or class performance. For example, you might decide that at the beginning of each math period, you will put 10 pennies in your pocket, and your goal is to find 10 things in the math period to positively acknowledge with the student. Each time you give positive feedback or interact with the student in a positive way, you can move a penny to your other pocket.
  • Schedule periodic individual conference times with the student to compliment them on areas of behavioral or academic performance or growth.
  • Periodically scan your classroom or common areas, specifically searching for important reinforceable behaviors that you can acknowledge with your student.
  • Devote 15 seconds at the end of each day to reflect on if the student had lots of corrective interactions. Write their name on a sticky note and place the note somewhere you will see it the next day. Use that note as a reminder to focus on positive interactions with that student.
What is contingent vs. non-contingent positive attention?
Positive interactions can be divided into two major categories, and both serve a powerful purpose. The first category is contingent positive feedback — acknowledging growth, effort and behavioral or academic success. Contingent positive feedback is integral to teaching and learning, especially when students are working to make major behavioral changes. The second category is non-contingent attention, which involves giving students time and attention, not because of anything they’ve done, but just because you notice and value them as people. It is very important for every student to feel they are noticed and valued without that attention being based on any specific accomplishment. This can help them experience feelings of self-worth, belonging and connectedness.
Tips for delivering contingent positive feedback
1) Provide specific, descriptive feedback.
It is easy to fall into repetitive phrases like “good job,” “nice work” and “fantastic” when giving praise. These phrases provide no specific information about what exactly the student did that was useful or important. Follow up these simple statements with “because …”, “doing …” or “when you …” For example:
  • “You did a great job during that activity because you listened carefully to the directions.”
  • “Nice work doing the steps exactly as we practiced.”
  • “Your paragraph was fantastic when you organized your thoughts on the planner first!”
Feedback should be full of information — confirming what was important or useful about what the student did.
2) Feedback should clarify the relationship between effort and success.
Focus praise on what the student did to increase success, rather than internal attributes. When a student does something really well, it can be tempting to say, “Janelle, you are so smart.” The problem is that a statement like this may imply to the student that if they had performed a certain way, you won’t think of them as smart. Rather than praising internal aspects of a student (e.g., telling the student that she is “good,” “smart,” “talented” or “brilliant”), focus on providing specific, descriptive feedback about what the student just did.
3) When possible, link positive feedback to a student’s goals, general class rules or schoolwide expectations, community values, etc.
When specific behavior is linked to goals or to classroom rules, students will begin to understand how their actions are related to more global or sophisticated expectations. Students need to know how their specific actions translate into being responsible, on task, polite and so on. For example:
  • “Evelyn, you demonstrated respect and responsibility behavior when you asked for a short break when you were frustrated.”
  • “Great job following directions quickly during the transition.”
  • “Thank you for being kind to your peers and listening during the discussion.”
4) Ask students about their preferred way of receiving positive feedback.
It may be helpful to inquire about students’ preferred forms of acknowledgement (e.g., public vs. private, verbal vs. nonverbal, individual vs. group, praise statements vs. tangible rewards, etc.). This is particularly useful with older students, as asking adolescents about their preferences provides autonomy and choice.
When specific behavior is linked to goals or to classroom rules, students will begin to understand how their actions are related to more global or sophisticated expectations.
Tips for providing non-contingent attention There are many ways to offer noncontingent attention and build positive relationships with students, such as: 1) Greeting students as they enter the classroom. This is the simplest way to provide regular noncontingent attention to your students. As students enter your room first thing in the morning or at the beginning of class, provide a friendly greeting. “Hello, Kai. Good morning, Danika. Francine, how are you today? You know, I’m tired this morning, too. We can nudge each other to stay awake in class.” 2) Learning more about aspects of your students’ cultural and personal identities they would like to share. For example, ask students who speak another language in their home setting to share some common greetings or phrases, like “please” and “thank you,” and work to incorporate these into your interactions with students and their families. Make efforts to uncover the personal interests of students that they are comfortable talking about. For example, ask questions about the type of music they like to listen to, books or movies they are enthusiastic about or after-school hobbies or sports they participate in. 3) Reflecting on and acknowledging students’ strengths. Every student has strengths and deserves to have adults who will help identify and celebrate things that the student does well. For some students, their strength may be in a specific subject or activity, while others may exhibit strengths with particular habits, attitudes or skills. For students who struggle with behavior in school, make efforts to find ways to acknowledge the student for those strengths or create situations where the student can demonstrate strengths. 4) Inviting students to ask for assistance. Find periodic private times to ask your student how they are doing in class or in the school in general and if they can use any assistance from you. If a student mentions that they are having trouble, arrange a time for that student to get some additional help from you. 5) Using self-disclosure as “trust generators.” Sharing information about yourself with your students and encouraging your students to share information about themselves with you can enhance trust and strengthen relationships. Zaretta Hammond, author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” calls these self-disclosure acts trust generators. For example, consider discussing shared hobbies, sports or other things you like to do that are similar to a particular student’s interests, or share stories of your own vulnerable moments with your students, such as a personal challenge you’ve overcome, lesson you’ve learned or mistake that you’ve made in the past. As we saw with Issac in our example at the beginning of this article, ROI is one of the best, first strategies any educator can use with a student who may be having some behavioral struggles in school. Even with older students, intentional efforts to boost ROI are a critical element of behavior intervention plans at all stages of behavior support. The great things about the research base behind ROI is that the age of the person does not matter; a 3:1 (or greater) ROI will benefit any age student and can yield powerful results. References Caldarella, P., Larsen, R. A., Williams, L., Downs, K. R., Wills, H. P., & Wehby, J. H. (2020). Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behaviour. Educational Psychology, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 01443410.2020.1711872 Cook, C. R., Grady, E. A., Long, A. C., Renshaw, T., Codding, R. S., Fiat, A., & Larson, M. (2017). Evaluating the impact of increasing general education teachers’ ratio of positive- to-negative interactions on students’ classroom behavior. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 19(2), 67–77. Downs, K. R., Caldarella, P., Larsen, R. A., Charlton, C. T., Wills, H. P., Kamps, D. M., & Wehby, J. H. (2019). Teacher praise and reprimands: The differential response of students at risk of emotional and behavioral disorders. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 21(3), 135–147. Floress, M. T., Jenkins, L. N., Reinke, W. M., & McKown, L. (2018). General education teachers’ natural rates of praise: A preliminary investigation. Behavioral Disorders, 43(4), 411–422. Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press. Cristy Coughlin, Ph.D., is a senior research associate and author for Ancora Publishing and Jossey Bass-Wiley. She holds a Ph.D. in school psychology. Jessica Sprick is an educational consultant and co-owner of Safe & Civil Schools, author for Ancora Publishing, ASCD, and Jossey Bass Wiley, and she has an M.S. in Special Education. Jeremy Resnick is an educational consultant with Safe & Civil Schools and author for Ancora Publishing and has experience in Pre-K–12 education as a teacher, building and district administrator, director of Curriculum and Instruction, and senior director of Equity and Instructional Services.