When someone gets more attention, they are encouraged to do more work. Elementary school children are no different. But when this attention is negative, the resulting behavior in the student is negative as well. Students who are self-motivated to be attentive in the classroom are often praised for their actions, while a student who is not receptive gets criticized or punished. From the surface, this system seems to make sense: those who work hard will be rewarded and those who don’t put forth the same effort are not. Yet, digging a little deeper shows negative results in this practice. Rather than focusing on errors, teachers (and those who are studying elementary education) must focus on what children are doing well and encourage them to do better. 

According to a study titled “Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behaviour,” students should be praised for their good actions and not reprimanded for bad ones. This study was led by Paul Caldarella, Ph.D., of Brigham Young University  and followed 2,536 students across the United States for three years. According to the study, “the children observed were shown to focus on tasks up to 20% to 30% more when teachers were required to consider the number of praise statements given, compared to the number of reprimands.” Caldarella further states, “Praise is a form of teacher feedback, and children need that feedback to understand what behavior is expected of them, and what behavior is valued by the teacher.”

Elementary-aged students are especially susceptible to forming problematic relationships with school. If a student is constantly called out in front of their peers for having an issue in the classroom, they are likely to unknowingly associate the same embarrassment or negative feelings towards learning. Classical conditioning, a theory developed by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in 1905, is “a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired: a response which is at first excited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.” This means that once a student has repeatedly associated negative feelings with the classroom, simply being in the classroom can elicit negative feelings. Furthermore, reprimanding students in front of their peers has lasting negative effects. According to the American Federation of Teachers, humiliation should be avoided in the classroom. The only thing that reprimanding students in front of others achieves is showing all of the students in the classroom that if they try and fail, their failure will be broadcasted to all of their peers.

Students who are acting out in the classroom usually have an underlying reason for their behavior. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have been proven to result in actions that sometimes cause a student to be deemed disruptive by an educator. According to ADDitudemag.com, a magazine dedicated to bringing awareness to ADD and ADHD, “a child who’s unable to express his opinion may throw his pencil across the room.” This means that instead of punishing the student for their outburst, teachers need to instead help the student verbalize their frustrations, then take the necessary correctional steps.

The most important thing for teachers and parents to do when a child acts up in a classroom is to let the child know that their feelings are valid. Often, both teachers and parents just tell the child to calm down or to relax. DevelopingMinds.net.au, a website with tips for teachers, says that before attempting to fight the problem through discipline, the authority figure should first empathize with the student and let them know that their problems are a part of life. A more thoughtful and positive approach to children in the classroom helps the student to feel more secure in their emotions and learning ability.