Teaching Strategies

The Power of Compliments in the Math Classroom

Consider these ideas for giving students meaningful praise that will encourage their learning.

December 5, 2023
Dobrila Vignjevic / iStock

When you see a student who is off task or having disruptive behavior, it can really draw your attention. Our brains are naturally wired to search for the negative or things not going right, especially in the math classroom, where the content can be so black and white, right or wrong.

There’s a lot of research about how specific positive praise can decrease unwanted behavior. It might help even more to rewire our thinking to say that we can use specific positive praise, or compliments, to increase desired behaviors.

The recommended praise-to-reprimand ratio is 4:1, with about six praise statements for every 15 minutes. This may seem like a lot, but once you adjust your mindset to see the positive, you’ll have access to unlimited opportunities, but these expected behaviors have to be carried out in a targeted way in order to have the most impact both academically and behaviorally.

4 Traits of Motivating Compliments

1. Compliments must be authentic and unexpected. This is one of the largest components that can dictate whether this effort is successful. Students can tell if compliments are disingenuous or an effort to control their behavior. Pulling up next to a child and observing them as they work for a moment before asking, “Can I give you a compliment?” is a great way to catch them off guard in the best of ways. Then once they are ready to receive it, make eye contact and point to where they’ve done what you noticed.

2. Compliments must be specific and observable. They must name the student or group and exactly what they were doing well. If compliments are vague, it can send an unclear message about which behavior you would like to be repeated. Instead of saying, “Good job on this problem,” it will be easier for students to repeat what you want with a statement like, “Strong mathematicians label their representations with context like you did here on your strip diagram, when you labeled the trucks and that it was pumpkins in each truck.” 

3. Compliments must be timely. Feedback is always the most impactful when it occurs exactly when the behavior occurs. This allows the student, and any others nearby, to obtain true clarity. Here’s what this could look like: “Sadie, you just read the problem again when your comprehension was unclear. That’s a great strategy instead of guessing. You were being a self-aware mathematician!” If feedback is always given after work has been turned in, we can miss out on witnessing great behaviors that happen during the solving process. 

4. Compliments must emphasize process, not ability. It’s very important that the compliments be specific to a behavior that students can replicate. For example, praising a student’s grit or thoughtfulness and how it has positively impacted their work is so much more powerful than saying someone is “good at math.”

How to Increase the Value of a Compliment

In order to increase the validity of the intended change, you can also add on a value potential statement. This is a statement after the compliment that explains why it’s important to continue the behavior.

Give compliments on abstract skills. If the student is persevering on a difficult math problem, you can say, “Wow, James.I see you’re drawing a representation to help you understand the context. When you use representations, it helps to make relationships and patterns visible in complex problems. That’s what good mathematicians do.”

You can also give compliments on classroom management skills that impact the learning. This might look like, “Thank you so much, Dhanavi, for putting all of the pieces back where they go in the math station. That’s so thoughtful as a member of our class. When you do this, the next group can get started right away and will have more time to learn.”

Another type of compliment could be on specific content-related skills that you want students to continue. “Talli, your number line is drawn so accurately with equal spaces, labels, and appropriate intervals. This will help you be more efficient and accurate, especially next year when you use them to find equivalent fractions.”

As you deliver these compliments, you shouldn’t be afraid to show your excitement. This can be called “Making Students Famous.” We want to celebrate students for what they’re doing well; especially in a math classroom, where students may have anxiety or reservations about their ability, compliments can even create a positive physical reaction. You’ll notice that students will be taken aback and even sit up straighter as they receive your feedback. Why is that? In a post on Individual Matters, psychologist Dr. Katrina Katen notes that “praise triggers the brain’s release of dopamine: a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that is strongly associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation.”

Getting Started

When you take this back to your classroom to try out, start with one math assignment or part of the math workshop. List a math behavior you want to focus on. As your students are working, call them by name, and celebrate that specific behavior and the value it will hold for them when they continue to do it.

Until it becomes natural to you, you can prepare using the following example.

Focus: Productive struggle

Behaviors to look for: Students making mistakes and trying a new way, students using resources around the room to get started, students not giving up

Compliment examples: 

  • I can see that you are thinking so hard. You used the Three Reads routine and made notes for the important parts. That’s what good mathematicians do! When you do this, it helps you to process difficult problems to find a way to get started.
  • I see that you made a mistake here and crossed it out before you found another way to solve. Sometimes mathematicians have to try ways that don’t work to get to a strategy that does. When you aren’t afraid to make mistakes, it helps you to take risks and build grit to accomplish great things. I admire that quality!
  • Wow, [student name]! I noticed you got a little overwhelmed by this problem, but you got up and took a walk, then came back and got right to work. When you do that, it sends oxygen to your brain and helps you think more clearly. That’s a great strategy for when you get overwhelmed. I use that strategy sometimes too!

It can take a few tries to make this feel natural, but it’s easy to buy into after you do it just once and see the reaction on one of your students’ faces. Next time you’re tempted to call out a reprimand, just scan the room for someone who is doing the desired behavior well, and give them the positive feedback they deserve. You will enhance your classroom culture in no time.

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