A goal of educators is to help children to become intrinsically motivated. Children's self-worth develops as an aside from working hard, surmounting frustrations, and overcoming obstacles. Honest praise provides children with the opportunity to gain a realistic understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. In order to feel strong, confident and independent, children must receive truthful valuation. Children, who have grown accustomed to continuous applause, may develop anxiety about their abilities, a fear of failure, a reluctance to try new things, and be ill-prepared to cope with future setbacks.
Effective praise focuses on a child's effort rather than on what is actually accomplished. When educators give genuine praise that is specific, spontaneous and well-deserved, it encourages continuous learning and decreases competition among students.
How can educators use praise effectively?
- Think in terms of acknowledgment and encouragement rather than praise. Praise helps most when it conveys not only approval but information about the progress a child is making. For example, "You have been trying so hard to learn those new words and now you are able to read the whole story!"
- Demonstrate interest and acceptance in children because they have innate value that is not contingent on their work. For example, say, "(Child's name), I'm glad you are in my class."
- Use positive body language such as smiling, looking directly at the child, standing close, listening intently, and assisting when needed.
- Acknowledge a child's effort or progress without judgment using clear, specific language. Offering descriptive praise shows that you are paying close attention. For example:
"I noticed how you took time to show the new student around the school. I am sure she appreciated the help."
" I can see that you enjoy math. You have worked on these problems for over half an hour!"
" I'm glad to see you are working so hard on your spelling words!"
Whenever possible, take the time to say something similar to the above examples, instead of using a generic response like, "Great work," "That's terrific!" or "You're super!"
- Communicate constructive observations. For example, say,
"You listened without interrupting."
"John is sharing with Thomas."
"Lily is waiting patiently in line."
"Margaret and Suzanne are working quietly."
"You put the books away without being asked."
- Acknowledge a child's specific behavior rather than commenting on his/her character. For example, "Since you have been doing all your math homework, you have brought up your grade!" rather than saying, "You are such a good student."
- Foster children's discussion and evaluation of their work by asking questions, "I can see that you worked hard on this project. Can you tell me about it?" or "How do you feel about your report? Is there anything else that needs to be done?" When adults listen to children, they are demonstrating interest and caring.
- Encourage positive character traits in students by naming them. For example, "Boys and girls, I appreciate each of you being quiet while I talked to Mrs. Jones. You were being respectful."
- Relate praise to effort and to how it benefited the child as well as others. Say things like, "Since you remembered to return your homework this week, you have done better in math and I have had more time to spend helping the other students."
- Promote initiative and attempting new skills. For example, "You listened well and followed directions without any help," and "Last week you could not kick the ball, but you practiced, and now you can!"
- Encourage perseverance and independence by saying things such as, "That experiment did not work out. What's next?" and "Instead of asking for help, you looked up the word in the dictionary!"
- Acknowledge independent thought and creativity, "That's an interesting idea. Tell me more."
- Reinforce problem-solving skills by saying things like, "As a group you decided who would be responsible for each part of the project."
- Sometimes privately compliment in order to provide an opportunity for an open, honest exchange. This will also decrease student competition that can occur when children feel that you favor some more than others.
- Reserve exuberant praise for outstanding effort.
Leah Davies received her Master's Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. She has been dedicated to the well-being of children for over 44 years as a certified teacher, counselor, prevention specialist, parent, and grandparent. Her professional experience includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.
Besides the Kelly Bear resources, Leah has written articles that have appeared in The American School Counseling Association Counselor, The School Counselor, Elementary School Guidance and Counseling Journal, Early Childhood News, and National Head Start Association Journal. She has presented workshops at the following national professional meetings: American School Counselor Association; Association for Childhood Education International; National Association for the Education of Young Children; National Child Care Association; National Head Start Association; National School-Age Child Care Alliance Conference