The Magic Ratio

5 to 1 Magic RatioOne of the most useful concepts in my professional and personal toolbox is one I stumbled upon nearly 15 years ago when I was trying to save my troubled marriage. Today, it forms one of the foundations of the school improvement program I help administer, and serves as a core practice that has improved every aspect of my life.

In studies conducted during the 1990s, psychology professor John Gottman discovered that he could predict with 90% accuracy whether couples would divorce within 4-6 years of his observation. The variable that made the difference between a marriage that survived and one that ended was whether the couple maintained a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

Research in the decades since Gottman’s study has confirmed that a high ratio of positive feedback to criticism has benefits not only in marriages, but in social relationships of all kinds, including those between teachers and students.

Part of my job involves visiting elementary schools that are implementing a coordinated program of school improvement, evaluating the fidelity of implementation and offering technical assistance where needed. A key part of the program is Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions (PBIS) a research-based model for creating positive school environments. Back in my parochial school teaching days 25 years ago, I would have called PBIS a permissive racket that lets the inmates run the asylum. But I’ve become a convert. The research shows that positive environments produce measurable academic outcomes, and my own classroom observations confirm the data.

I’ve observed classrooms where students are apathetic or disruptive and the teacher’s interactions with students are mostly terse rebukes. Feedback ratios in these classrooms fall well below the 5:1 threshold, often dipping below 1:1, and in the worst cases, can be as low as 1:3. Student engagement is low, very little learning is taking place, and it’s obvious that both teacher and students are counting the minutes until recess and the days until summer vacation.

On several occasions, I’ve returned to observe the same classroom after the teacher has received professional development in PBIS and the importance of positive feedback ratios. When teachers have significantly modified their feedback ratios, the difference is striking. The teacher is no longer tense and snapping at students, and students are actively engaged in learning.

Positive feedback ratios make an impact not just in the classroom, but in every aspect of life. I am particularly mindful of it in the way I parent. When I am sparing with corrective feedback, my kids listen. If I complain and criticize all the time, each individual piece of criticism becomes part of the general noise, and they tune it out. This lies at the heart of the idea that you should pick your battles, a standard parenting trope that goes back at least to John Locke in the 17th century.

Picking your battles is an effective strategy in the office as well as at home. Gottman’s magic ratio is as applicable in the workplace as it is in marriage, parenting, and education. A toxic office is as unproductive as a toxic classroom. If you keep things generally positive, keep your criticisms to yourself until you’ve had a time to reflect decide that they are worth sharing, people will be more inclined to listen when you do.

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