Empty Praise or Constructive Feedback?

by Dr. Wayne Lance

“What a fine job of cleaning your room, Amanda! Now you’ll be able to find your books without any problem.” 

Praise goes a long way toward encouraging children to do the things we know are good for them. The probability that Amanda will straighten her room tomorrow without prompting has increased, if ever so slightly, because of these words.

Most parents know the power of praise, and many strive to give positive words of encouragement at a rate three or four times greater than words of reproof. Most parents and teachers also know that praise can become only empty words and lose its effectiveness. This happens when it is overdone or delivered without sincerity. Thinking in terms of constructive feedback may help to avoid the pitfalls of empty praise.

What is Constructive Feedback?

Research tells us that “constructive feedback from teachers, including deserved praise and specific suggestions, helps students learn, as well as develop positive self-esteem” (What Works: Research About Teaching and Learning, 2nd ed.) This booklet elaborates as follows:

“Providing positive and timely comments is a practice that teachers at all levels can use. These comments help students correct errors and give them recognition when deserved. Helpful feedback praises successful aspects of a student’s work and points out those areas that need improvement.

Useful feedback, whether positive or negative, is prompt, germane, and includes specific observations and recommendations. It tells students what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they can improve. An example of effective feedback is:

"Your book report is well written, Paul. The content is clear because the ideas are presented in a logical order, and the details support your main idea. Your use of clever examples makes your book report enjoyable to read. Next time, let’s work harder to organize your time so that you will meet the assigned deadline."

“An example of ineffective feedback is: ‘Your book report is well written, Paul. But it is late and I’m upset about that.’”

Individual Differences

Praise does not have an equal effect on all children. Research shows that children who have experienced failure and who have difficulty mastering skills tend to react more positively to encouragement and praise than they do to criticism. 

Successful children are more able to accept and respond to specific comments and suggestions about their work, and they are more able to see in a positive light feedback designed to improve a deficiency. The child having learning problems needs help in knowing what to correct and how to correct it. Stating constructive feedback in a way that places the focus on the deficiency in the task rather than on a deficiency in the child calls for tactful use of words by the parent. 

By the way, parents—praise and constructive feedback are good for spouses, too. Make it a family affair!

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