A Surprising Way To Improve Student Behaviour | The Highly Effective Teacher A Surprising Way To Improve Student Behaviour | The Highly Effective Teacher

A Surprising Strategy To Improve Student Behaviour

Marie Amaro

A Surprising Strategy To Improve Student Behaviour

A study showed how positive reinforcement improved student behaviour 

You can improve student behaviour 80% of the time if you use positive rather than negative feedback. 

Don’t believe me? 

A psychologist friend recently told me this remarkable story of research showing how positive reinforcement can work to improve student behaviour. 

Positive reinforcement refers to anything that increases the likelihood that you will repeat an action.

And you can be positively reinforced in any number of ways: your own feeling of success, other people recognising your behaviour and commenting favourably, enjoyment in the activity and any positive flow on effects from the action. 

The story of the research was told by Tim Lewis at a Positive Behaviour Intervention Supports (PBIS) conference.

A PBIS school in California had spent 2 years implementing universal strategies across the school.

Universal strategies refer to the systems set up across the school to support all students.

These are the whole school approach to developing optimal school and classroom culture that provides clear behavioural expectations.

It teaches students how to access support and assistance, reinforces positive behaviour, establishes clear processes and procedures across school and classrooms and provides explicit teaching for the behaviours expected across various schools settings and situations.

Despite the implementation of universal strategies, office referrals for inappropriate behaviour were still at a high level, approximately 40%. 

The school behaviour team decided to collect data on the use of classroom management skills.

The data revealed that the use of positive reinforcement by teachers was low.

The recommended ratio for PBIS is 4:1 positive to negative comments to students.

Observation of  teacher student interactions showed a ratio of about 1:1. 

The school then provided professional learning for the teachers in how to raise the use of positive reinforcement in their interactions with students and collected data. 

The ratio improved to 2:1 and office referrals reduced to 30%. 

This was still not the desired rate of success necessary to move to the next level of PBIS. 

The school provided additional PL for staff and redoubled their efforts to improve the ratio of negative to positive. 

When data was again taken across the school it had increased to 5:1 and office referrals had reduced to 20%. 

Who would have thought that by increasing levels of positive reinforcement office referrals for inappropriate behaviour would reduce? 

Why did increasing positive reinforcement reduce inappropriate student behaviour? 


Interactions between teachers and students became more positive, improving the relationships.

John Gottman, the relationship expert, uses the ratio of positive to negative interactions as an indicator of the health of a relationship. Say YES As Often As Possible


Students were hearing additional reminders of appropriate behaviour when teachers reinforced other students and described their behaviour.  


When teachers increased the ratio of positive to negative feedback, the climate in the classroom became more positive, enhancing students’ sense of belonging creating a flow on effect to student behaviour.

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When teachers were more focused on the positive behaviour, it (the positive behaviour) increased in intensity and frequency. 

The lesson here is that we DON’T GET improved student behaviour by focusing on students’ inappropriate behaviour.

Let’s focus on student’s positive behaviour and let them know!



Marie Amaro

Marie is the author of Habits of Highly Effective Teachers and is a passionate educator, with over 30 years experience working in education. Marie is a speaker, presenter and specialises in positive behaviour management, teacher wellbeing, restorative practices and school culture.