Effective and Harmful Praise

Teachers often say things like ‘ Well done!’ or ‘You’re a good girl!’ to children and assume it will have a positive effect. Teachers often assume that praise is essential for classroom management, building self-esteem, and establishing a warm relationship with the children. But research shows that this kind of general praise can have very negative consequences.

 

Although the praise may make both the teacher and the children feel good and although it may make the children more compliant, this is often at the expense of the children’s academic achievement, self-esteem, and motivation to challenge new things.

General praise

General praise is praise that doesn’t provide much specific information on what a child did well. With this kind of praise, children tend to think they received the praise more for their general inherent ability than for the specific thing they did to receive the praise. This kind of praise, especially when it focuses on the personal characteristic of a child, such as ‘ You are intelligent!’ encourages a fixed mindset.

 

— Children with more of a fixed mindset tend to assume that their character, intelligence and creative ability are fixed. They tend to avoid taking risks and avoid failure, so as to maintain their fixed view of themselves as being good at something.—

 

There are often negative consequences immediately after receiving general praise. The child may prefer to repeat the tasks she completed successfully rather than try something new and risk failure. Even small amounts of general praise can also lead children to believe that their self-worth is dependent on their performance, and they tend to believe they are bad when they do not succeed.

 

Behavior-specific praise

This means saying something like ‘Great! You answered all the questions’ or ‘I’m glad you cleaned the classroom so well’. Specific praise makes it clear exactly what a child did to receive praise. Those who favor specific praise tend to think that the children are more likely to repeat the desired behavior if they know exactly why they are being praised.

 

This is probably true, and this kind of praise is certainly better than general praise. At least the children are clear about what they are doing right. But this kind of praise can easily just be a kind of manipulative conditioning that makes the children more compliant, but doesn’t build up the children’s willingness to take risks and learn actively.

 

Praising effort

Praising effort is often held up as the best alternative to general personal praise. It is often claimed that saying things like ‘You tried hard!’, leads to children having more of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

 

— A growth mindset is where children tend to challenge new things and see failure as a springboard for growth. These children tend to believe that they can change and grow if they make an effort, and these children have more of a passion for learning.—

 

But encouraging a growth mindset is not as simple as just praising effort. One problem is that teachers often praise the effort of children who are not using effective learning strategies. In fact it is very common for teachers to especially praise the effort of children who fail, so as to encourage them. This is done with very good intentions, but it is likely to reinforce ineffective learning strategies.

 

If we are going to praise, I think the important thing is to first support a child to find successful learning strategies, and then praise the process she used when she does, such as by saying ‘That’s a good way to do it’ or ‘You must have studied very hard’. This kind of process praise can have a very positive effect on the children’s willingness to challenge new things.

 

Overpraise

There are other problems with praise. Let’s look at a few. First, overpraise. Praising children too often can easily come across as not very sincere, which can damage our relationship with the children. Overpraise can also easily make insecure children more insecure. It can send the message that we have low expectations of them.

 

Praise may increase dependency

Whenever we praise, we may increase the children’s desire to please us. The children may focus on our reaction to how they perform on a task, rather than on the task itself. Instead of developing confidence in themselves, they may become dependent on our reaction. Their mood may also vary according to our reaction.

 

And, as with rewards, if we praise children when they study hard or behave well, they may do these things in order to receive praise. This means that when we are not there, they will have less reason to study hard or behave well, because there is nobody there to praise them.

 

Praise may divide the class

Whenever we praise one child, we are not praising other children, and children who do not get much praise may come to see us as having favorites in the class or see themselves as failing when compared to those who get more praise. So, if we praise children, we need to be careful not to single out children.

 

Private or public praise

Even when we praise effective learning strategies, we need to consider how to do it. Should we do it quietly with an individual child or should we do it publicly? Research shows that, in general, very young children like public praise, but, as children get older, many children don’t like to be praised publicly.

 

There is also the problem, even with very young children that public praise of an individual child in class can distract the other children. Personally, I think that whenever possible, it is better to give private encouragement that directs a child towards what she is focused on, and doesn’t distract the other children
from what they are focused on.

 

Praise as a judgment

I will quote from Alfie Kohn: ‘The most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment. And in the long run, people rarely thrive as a result of being judged. Praise is the mirror image of criticism, not its opposite. Both are ways of doing things to kids as opposed to working with them. Verbal rewards are often more about manipulating than encouraging — a form of sugar-coated control.
What kids most need from adults, apart from non-judgmental feedback and guidance, is unconditional support: the antithesis of a patronizing pat on the head for having jumped through our hoops.’

 

Instead of praise

Each child in our class needs encouragement, but when we encourage a child, we need to ask ourselves whether our comments are drawing her further into whatever she is doing or taking her mind away from what she is doing. It is best to make comments that are directed at the work itself rather than at the child. Rather than saying, Well done! we can be curious and show an interest in what she has said, written, or drawn.

 

Echoing what she has just said is also an effective way of expressing interest. If she manages to make a sentence with a pattern she has been struggling with, such as, I like cats better than dogs, instead of saying, ‘Well done!’ or ‘Good job!, we can echo her sentence naturally by saying, You like cats better than dogs. Me, too! And she will know she has succeeded in getting her message across, and feel a sense of personal accomplishment. If she has made a small mistake, we just use the correct pattern in a relaxed way when we echo, without criticizing or teaching the point.

 

The aim is always to encourage the children to feel satisfaction from a sense of accomplishment, not from the value we place upon what she does. The children need non-judgmental interactive feedback from us in order to find successful learning strategies and reach their full potential as learners.


 

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