5-to-1 Ratio of Positive to Negative Interactions

Would you like to decrease the amount of conflict and find more joy in the relationships in your life? How about on your team at work, in your home with your kids or your spouse, and yes, even in your classroom?

While there isn’t a “magic script” to use in every situation, there is something researchers call the “magic ratio”, and according to the science, it can do wonders to increase the positivity and balance of your relationships, whether in your work or personal life.

In the classroom, the 5-to-1 Ratio can help improve students’ sense of connectedness to school and to your class, but it’s more than just some touchy-feely fluff. The purpose is to improve academic engagement and decrease disruption as a result of a more positive classroom climate.

The research originated under the work of Dr. John Gottman, who studied the interactions between 700 newlywed couples. He and his colleagues predicted whether the couples would remain married or not, based on a scoring system they used to track positive versus negative interactions between them.

The Magic Ratio

Ten years later, they found (with over 90% accuracy!) that those whose positive interactions outnumbered the negative by at least 5:1, especially during conflict, remained together!

So what impact can knowing all this have on YOUR classroom?

As mentioned, there is no specific script for using the 5-to-1 ratio; however, there is framework to follow, and it’s pretty simple. Firstly, know that there is no preset number of times positive reinforcement should be delivered on a given day.

Secondly, don’t feel like you can never reprimand or correct your students! Instead, just think in terms of proportions. Generally speaking, a teacher following the 5-to-1 PCM strategy will acknowledge students’ positive behavior at least 5 times more often than acknowledging their problematic or unwanted behavior.

What constitutes positive acknowledgement?

  • Words (thank you for… I like that you… great job with… I appreciate that you…)
  • Gestures (thumbs up, smiling eyes…)
  • Physical contact (high fives, fist bump…)
good job

What about students who need LOTS of redirection?

For little Johnny or Jane in your room who are a little more “high maintenance” (who you already know from previous experience WILL need correction), you have a challenge before you. 

This is not to say you can’t hit the magic ratio for your more challenging kids. It just means you’ll need to be more aware of the opportunities that present themselves to positively acknowledge them BEFORE correction is needed. These are the cases where the term “catch them being good” definitely applies. Start by acknowledging even the most basic appropriate actions, and work up from there.

In time, the long-term effect will be that your high maintenance student sees you not just as someone who constantly scolds and reprimands, but that you also have a heart and want them to succeed.

Keep in mind that the most challenging of students are the ones who likely need the positivity the most!


Tips for successful implementation:

  • Deliver the positive acknowledgement immediately after you see the desirable behavior. This helps students learn expectant behaviors, helps teachers build stronger relationships, and shows the rest of the class what you’re looking for/what’s acceptable.
  • Be specific: Avoid, “Good job”. Instead, try, “Good job waiting for instructions before sharpening your pencil”. 
  • Be sincere: Students can spot a fraud a mile away! 
  • It’s OK to compare a student’s behavior to a his/her previous time, but don’t compare one student (say, who IS doing something right) to another (who isn’t).
  • Whether giving a positive acknowledgement or a correction/reprimand, keep your tone relatively even (i.e. if you elevate your emotion, it will only elevate the student’s emotion right back)

Test Yourself

Curious to know just how many positives to negatives you dish out in a typical class period? Try one of these tallying ideas to check-in with yourself. If you’re already at the “magic ratio” good for you! If not, just strive to get closer, knowing that the change is a work in progress. Initially, it might feel a little awkward, but with practice, you’ll get it!

  • Try placing 5 rubber bands around one of your wrists, and moving one to the left each time you deliver a positive interaction. When you give a reprimand or redirection, move the rubber band back the other way.
  • Loosely place a piece of masking tape or paper loop around both wrists and use a pen to mark a tally on the left for each positive and on the right for each negative. At the end of class, add up your tallies and reduce to find your ratio (yes, we’re doing fractions)!
  • Have a colleague come to your room to track for you.

You could use the strategies above on your whole class, or on a specific student.

Of course we all know that corrections and reprimands are necessary in even the most well-run classrooms. Just keep in mind that they are much more effective, and will get you much better results, when delivered within the context of a positive, reinforcing environment. When students feel connected they are more likely to feel engaged and that just might motivate them to achieve academically! That definitely benefits you all!

Have fun with it, and may you have many more positive days in your life than not!

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