Classroom learning is fifty percent content or instruction and fifty percent context or environment. To maximize overall classroom performance, keeping all students focused, engaged, and receptive to learning, teachers must be able to walk, smoothly and effortlessly, the very fine line between what teaching methodology is (content) and what emotional atmosphere is (context). In other words, to reach the right balance content-context, teachers need to pay attention equally both to what we are teaching, or the methods we use, and to how we are teaching it (how students receive our instruction) or the environment around us. All teachers know very well that, without the right environment, not even the best methodology survives. The fifty percent of learning comprised in our teaching methodology is beyond the scope of this eguide, but the fifty percent that is communication-based, most specifically, the messages we are sending daily to children takes center stage here. At the core of this language-based approach for improving classroom behavior is the strong belief that teachers’ supportive verbal exchanges with students are our most important tool for eliciting the behavior we want from children.
All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior is an eguide about how teachers can use these common ways of talking to help children better themselves. When students show recurrent behavior problems, weak interpersonal skills, and/or seem to lack motivation in improving their behavior it may be beneficial for teachers to reflect about whether the messages sent to children may be a contributing factor in their weak compliance and/or low motivation to improve. Specifically, teachers benefit in analyzing, and if necessary, modifying, the kinds of behavior expectations that we are communicating to children, for instance, any low and/or negative expectation that makes our habitually disruptive student aware of our own doubts and skepticism about the child’s ability to modify the problem behavior. The way we report to our habitually disruptive students both their current behavior and their chances to improve that behavior; that is, the way we give feedback, criticize, and/or correct the problem behavior are decisive factors in winning children’s compliance and in improving motivation. Through corrective feedback and redirection, teachers can send “just the right message” to challenge the child’s self-doubts; to change behavior, children need to believe that success is within their reach. Most specifically, consistently and enthusiastically we communicate goal-oriented (what we want the child to accomplish) and effort-oriented (report of progress) messages that we deliver through corrective verbal interventions such as feedback and constructive criticism.
Communication that improves behavior sees behavior change as a process, with different children moving at a different pace and rate. Being supportive of children throughout this process is by far more effective than just focusing on the outcome. All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior breaks down these three common speech acts and presents ways in which teachers can use language that supports and inspires children to be the best they can be.
When teachers give effective feedback, we are delivering explicit information about how appropriate or inappropriate a behavior or an academic skill is. Baker (1999) found that students liked to receive positive feedback, and that students rated their relationship with their teachers higher, when the teacher gave feedback and praised children. Effective feedback, that is, feedback that gives information stated clearly and explicitly, associates with classroom behavior that is both positive and task-appropriate in those students with behavior deficits (Beyda, Zentall, and Ferko, 2002). According to these authors, information-explicit management, or giving clear directives to students, decreases task avoidance and off-task behaviors. Both low ability and habitually disruptive students benefit when the teacher consistently uses reminders that specify what the students need to be doing. An information-explicit practice such as feedback is of particular benefit to students with behavior difficulties, because it structures appropriate behavior at the same time that identifies what inappropriate behavior and/or inadequate performance is.
In addition to being information-specific, effective feedback is both issue-focused (specifics about performance) and based on observations, never focused on the person (child’s identity or character) or based on our opinions, judgments, or feelings. Judgments and opinions that are positive belong in the category of praise (e.g., “You are so organized!”), not feedback. Similarly, judgments and opinions that are negative seem closer to negative criticism than to feedback (e.g., “You are such a messy-sloppy!”). Either way, praise and negative criticism are general, vague, focused on the child’s identity/character, and they state nothing else than our own opinions and feelings. Information-specific feedback, on the other hand, is delivered in a way that students learn something, increasing the chances that children will produce an improved response in a similar situation in the future. Most specifically, children need to know what they need to improve and what exactly they can do (steps and/or strategies) to improve their current performance. Remember that without any relevant and specific information, you are only giving praise or negative criticism.
Kottler and Kottler (2002) state that teachers should couple feedback with a supportive comment. Supportive feedback is sensitive and provides emotional support to the student receiving the feedback; for example, “One of the things that you do that I really like is…”
Kinds of Feedback
The three kinds of feedback that teachers most commonly use in the classroom are:
Examples of the Three Kinds of Feedback
When we give corrective feedback, we tell the child exactly what to do. Corrective feedback is descriptive, guiding the student towards a more appropriate alternative or a new behavior. We should deliver corrective feedback in a neutral or positive tone of voice, conveying the expectation that the student will comply with our directives.
More Guidelines for Giving Corrective and Supportive Feedback
Comment about behavior; feedback should give information about the specific behavior or the specific skill that we expect the child to improve. Statements like, “I like what you did” or “That was nice” are too vague to be good feedback. The child will have a really hard time trying to figure out and comply with directions that we do not state clearly.
Similarly, messages like, “You need to improve your behavior,” “You need to return your homework on time,” and “You need to check your spelling” are not corrective feedback. With these kinds of messages, we let the child know that something is not right, but we are not reporting exactly what went wrong, neither how it can be fixed. Giving clarity about what happened should be the aim of our feedback.
With our corrective and supportive feedback, we always remind children what the academic or behavior goal is, meaning that, to give feedback that makes a difference, both the student and the teacher need to have the child’s goal in mind. Teachers should structure feedback around the child’s goal (what the child can do to come closer to the goal), focusing the child on strategies to reach the goal and staying away from what the child did wrong, or what the child must stop doing. Just by reminding the child of what the behavior or academic goal is, we help identify aspects of his behavior that are helpful, as well as identifying and eliminating those behaviors that are not helping.
If all that we do is praising children, eventually, the motivation of our habitually disruptive student or our low-performing student fades away. Just think about it, how we can expect students to stay focused on effort and goals if they do not know how close from the target behavior or from the goal they truly are. This does not mean that we should not praise children; praise has a role in motivating children, and there is nothing wrong in enthusiastically praising our students’ accomplishments. What it means simply is that we should deliver praise in a way that reinforces our feedback, for example, telling the child, “I love what you did this morning! Walking away from a fight showed courage.” Instead of just saying, “Good job,” tell the child that he used a specific strategy or a specific procedure in a way that gave him success.
Focus the student on strengths, making the child aware of how her particular strengths can help in achieving her behavior or academic goal.
Focus your feedback on building and reinforcing strengths rather than on “fixing” weaknesses. To be able to focus on the child’s strengths, we need to spend time finding those strengths, or finding out what children can do well on the specific task, skill, or behavior. Once we identify strengths, the next step will be to analyze how the child can apply those strengths to the part of their behavior or academic performance that needs to improve. And right there, we can create a truly encouraging and inspirational feedback session, working with the child in figuring out ways in which he/she can use those strengths across different areas of school performance.
Describe ways in which the behavior did match the skill, including the degree (e.g., good or fair) to which the performance matched the skill or goal. For example, “Today, you were able to remain seated for seven minutes in a row. That’s an improvement from four minutes in a row yesterday.” For an academic skill, you would say, “Your summary of the story was good because you included…”
Describe ways in which the performance did not match the skill; for example, “You need to improve…” or “Your summary was missing…”
Provide a specific recommendation for change; that is, a step, a strategy, or a technique that the student receiving the feedback can follow to improve the performance or to approximate the goal. For example, “You seem to focus better when you sit on the reading center. Would you be willing to try that strategy?”
A simple procedure to structure the way we give feedback can be, first, make a comment on a positive aspect of the child’s performance (the way the performance matched or approximated the skill). Next, give a specific recommendation for change, that is, what the child can do to match the skill more closely. Alternatively, we can: (a) tell the child clearly what we are looking for, (b) praising what he is doing right, (c) telling what is not right, and finally (d) suggesting new ways for accomplishing the goal. We need to make sure that the next step for correcting the behavior has been clearly identified.
Two common ways for giving feedback in a structured and positive way are:
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