Positivity Wins: The Power of Three-to-One Praise

Positivity Wins: The Power of Three-to-One Praise
January 25, 2017 Dave Beal
Boy holding a cup after winning a contest

As parents and educators, we all know the value of communicating positively to our students and children. However, when we get caught up in the day-to-day grind, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of modeling positivity. This is where the Three-to-One Principle can come in handy. The Three-to-One Principle focuses on highlighting student’s positive behavior three times as often as negative behavior. Here are a few important points as to why this principle is so important.

Kids Need to Know Their Worthiness
Students seem emotionally resilient, but they often take criticism to heart in ways we don’t intend. If we give too much negative feedback, they may tend to have lower self-esteem as they get older. Children are forming their sense of self, so how we interact with them influences them profoundly.

Instead of pointing out their shortcomings and telling them what to do, why not ask the child about the task itself? Here are a few questions that will help remind your students of the objective of each activity:

  1. Did you do your best?
  2. Did you support your team?
  3. Did you have fun?

Even if they are not technically performing perfectly, there is always something to compliment—a good attitude, good effort, consistent improvement, or a desire to help. It’s important to let kids know we see these things and to let them know that good character is more important than technical perfection . . . and that they are good and worthy people, even if they are not perfect at everything they do.

Giving Power to Positive Memories
The human brain remembers frightening and traumatic experiences longer and more vividly than positive experiences. This feature is a survival mechanism to help us remember and avoid danger. Negative experiences in childhood seem to stand out more in our memories, which is why so many adults still struggle with the traumas from their childhood.

When we give compliments, we can help our students heal from trauma they have experienced, so that it doesn’t follow them into adulthood. Compliments allow kids to know that these negative experiences do not define who they are. Developing positive self-esteem is critical for a successful transition into adulthood, and we must recognize our role in the development of our students. If positive experiences dominate their memories, they will enter adulthood with a positive outlook, which will benefit them physically, emotionally, and mentally.

We Get More of What We Focus On
One basic tenant of Brain Education is “where the mind goes, energy follows.” In other words, we tend to manifest more of whatever we give most of our attention to. This is true with our student’s behavior, too. If we constantly fixate on correcting bad behavior, bad behavior will probably be all we see. By giving compliments at least three times as often, we bring energy to positive behavior.

As a teacher, you may notice how your students are naturally sensitive to where your attention goes, and many will want to get your attention by any means necessary, even if that means by misbehaving. For many students, negative attention is better than none, so they will habitually act out to gain your attention. By deliberately focusing on positive behavior, even in the face of challenging student behavior, students will soon realize that positive behavior is the most efficient way to bring attention to themselves.

It’s a Habit Worth Modeling
Students are much more impressionable than adults due to “mirror neurons” located in the brain. Mirror neurons help students learn exceptionally fast from what they see as opposed to what they hear. Therefore, modeling good behavior is very important from a young age, especially since it will go on to influence their relationships moving forward, including up to when they have their own children. The Three-to-One Principle sets forth an example of a positive outlook on life, and what better gift can we give our students?

It Will Make You a Better Person, Too
The Three-to-One Principle is important for your own growth, too. As you practice doing this with your students, you are training yourself to be a more positive person in general. It can be translated into a similar practice for everything you do—seeing three blessings for every complaint that you have, for example. And of course, don’t forget to apply the Three-to-One Principle to the adults in your life. Although children may be more sensitive, adults need to compliments too. No one can ever be their best if they feel judged or undervalued. And don’t forget about the person you probably criticize the most—you. Compliments are essentially a verbal form of love, so why not give lots of it to yourself and everyone you meet?


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  1. […] anyone else who may need your assistance.” The logic of that direction is simple: if you don’t take care of your own needs first, you will be of little help to others […]

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