Giving Praise to Children

In a parent consultation recently, the issue of giving praise to children came up.  Praise is good, right?  All children love praise!  They won’t achieve anything without it.

When I was training to be a teacher back in the noughties, everything was based around praise.  Praise for sitting still and listening, praise for writing the date, praise for answering a question right, praise for answering a question wrong, praise for not hitting that child, praise for saying sorry for hitting that child… 

I vividly remember being told never to tell a child they had got something wrong.  To say something like “good try, but not quite”. 

After a few years at the chalkface, it becomes clear that these strategies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  Praise only works when it is used sparingly and honestly.  Praising a child every five minutes for things that don’t necessarily deserve it can lead to apathy and lack of motivation.

An experience tutor working online with a primary-aged child.  The tutor is engaged with the child and giving praise when appopriate for effort and approach.

The Problem with Praise

For children lacking in confidence, such as many of the children I work with, it can be tempting to over-praise to raise their self-esteem.  You may say that their picture or writing, or whatever it is, is the “best you’ve ever seen” or that it is “amazing”.  However, research suggests that this language has the opposite effect.  If you say or imply something is “perfect” or “incredibly good” (when it isn’t) children know what you are saying is not true and as a result, are less likely to choose a more challenging activity afterwards compared to children who were told it was just “good”, (“Mind Over Money”, Claudia Hammond, 2016, p153-154). By over-praising, we are setting standards that children feel are too high and creating a fear of failure because they don’t believe they can achieve the same level again in the future.

Research by Professor Carole Dweck, who has pioneered thinking around mindset, shows that praise is more effective when it is given for effort or the way a task is approached, rather than results (getting answers right).  She found that repeatedly telling a child they are “clever” (even if they are) can result in them staying within their comfort zone and not wanting to challenge themselves.

Praise in Tuition

To return to my consultation with a parent, she mentioned that at school, praise was a little too forthcoming and results-driven, which had led to exactly the situation found by Dewck’s research.  My tutee thought the work they did was good (when it wasn’t always good) and they were resisting challenging themselves.  Having worked with me for a few months now, we can both see that the child is thinking more carefully about their work, putting more effort into it, and spending longer on it.  They are willing to try new things that will challenge them and move their learning forward.  They are also more receptive to making mistakes and correcting them.  This is because I don’t NOT praise, but I don’t OVER-praise, and I praise for effort and approach, not just results. 

If a child I’m working with has done something well, I will tell them; if it is truly amazing, I will tell them and we will celebrate that – but if it isn’t, I won’t claim it is, but will help them work out how to improve it.  If they have found something difficult, but have tried hard, overcome frustrations, or asked for help I will give praise, because this helps build their confidence and willingness to keep trying and challenging themselves more in the future. 

An experienced tutor working online with a primary-aged child.  The child is receiving appropriate priase for their effort or approach to their work.

To go back to my training days and being told not to tell and child they got something wrong but to say something like “good try, but not quite”, well, I’ve dropped the “good try, but” bit if it wasn’t a good try.  If the child is clearly not thinking hard enough, or has rushed, or has shown no understanding of the question or task, it is not necessarily a “good” try.  The praise I give is appropriate and based on effort and approach, not just results.   The impact that has on the child’s confidence and learning is clear to see.

Do contact me to discuss how I can help support you with your child’s learning.

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