When used effectively, praise is a powerful way of building up children’s self-esteem and maintaining healthy, trusting relationships. Praise can also play a significant role in managing children’s behaviour in a positive way.
But praise is also a double-edged sword and, as well as the intended ‘feel-good factor’, certain types of praise can sometimes unintentionally lead to a range of negative underlying feelings such as:
- doubt about the praiser;
- anxiety, insecurity and/or denial;
- a feeling that it’s meaningless;
- a feeling that you’re being manipulated;
- interference with your performance;
- a dependence on approval to know your own worth;
- a feeling that praise is more about the praiser than what has been achieved.
The least helpful kind of praise is when teachers pass judgement by saying e.g Very good, excellent, great etc. without ever explaining why. Although such praise may be positively given and encourage participation (particularly with very young learners), there is a danger that it can create a kind of tyranny, as children don’t know why the praise was given or when it may be withdrawn. This kind of praise can also create dependency and a classroom culture of what has sometimes been called ‘praise junkies’ i.e. children who need someone else to judge and evaluate what they’ve done, rather than developing the inner confidence to be able to do it themselves.
The most helpful kind of praise is descriptive rather than judgemental. In other words, instead of just saying e.g. That’s fantastic, brilliant, wonderful / You good boy/girl, teachers are specific and describe in detail what they wish to praise e.g. I see a neat and carefully written paragraph. / I noticed that you only used English in the game. Through describing what you see, feel or notice, you give children an external model of what they can do or have achieved. This allows them to internalize what you say and recognise their own strengths e.g. I am a neat and careful writer. / I am able to play a game using only English which in turn goes into their emotional ‘self-esteem bank’ and builds up inner confidence and self-knowledge.
When using praise to manage children’s behaviour, some useful strategies to use (with the proviso that praise should never be empty or insincere) are:
– CBG (Catch them Being Good). Take every opportunity to praise good behaviour and social acts when you see them. Praise communicates messages about what you value and think is important. It is therefore important to praise things that go beyond work and effort if you value these as well.
– Praise early in a lesson, e.g. make positive comments about homework or work done in the last lesson, and include as many children as possible. This helps to pre-empt misbehaviour and make children feel positively disposed at the outset.
– Peripheral or proximity praise. Wherever possible, correct unwanted behaviours by praising those nearby who are doing the right thing, rather than focussing on and telling off children who are not complying.
– Positive compliment before registering negative behaviour e.g. David, you’ve been doing lots brilliantly today but you need to think about settling down to the next activity now. David will be surprised and flattered to get the compliment before you focus on the negative behaviour (and it is also important to do this in a way that gives him the responsibility to change).
– By the way … apparently ‘throw away’ praise is a technique that sometimes works well with older children e.g. I can see you’ve worked really hard on the reading text by the way. / Thanks for putting up your hand / not talking out of turn by the way. Without making a big deal of giving praise, it shows that you still notice and value the way they behave.
The role of praise evolves as children go through infant and primary school. Four key things to reflect on are:
1 The children’s age: be generous with praise with younger children. Up to the age of approximately 7 or 8 years old, children have an insatiable appetite for praise and the desire to please adults is an important influence on their motivation and learning. Praise provides guidance, instant feedback, encouragement, gets children participating, builds up confidence, and makes children feel cared for and liked. As children get older, however, it is important to use praise more discriminatingly, judiciously and sparingly. Praise for encouragement will be devalued or seem meaningless and it is important to look for things which genuinely merit favourable comment.
2 What to praise: this also needs to be age appropriate and reflect suitable challenges and achievements. For example, Well done for finding the right page is a real achievement for little ones but would be an insult for older children.
3 Public or private praise: With younger children praise from the teacher in front of others in the class is usually a source of pride. With older children, however, you need to consider carefully whether to praise publicly or to have a quiet word in private instead. Although children still have a need for praise, they may feel that it isn’t cool to be praised by the teacher in front of peers.
4 Your voice: While an enthusiastic pitch and intonation may be appropriate with little ones, it is likely to feel patronising and may be resented by older children. With upper primary, it is usually more effective to use a similar tone as when talking to an adult, and you are likely to be taken more seriously too.
The benefits of using praise are overwhelmingly positive, but we also need to use it with care. Any thoughts?
Note: the star image is from Hello, Robby Rabbit 1, C. Read & A. Soberón, Macmillan Education