Encouragement or Praise for Children?
by Elvin Klassen1
Praise is an expression of worth, approval, or admiration. It is usually given to a child when a task or deed is well done or when a task is completed. Children need feedback on the work they do. How can we provide feedback most effectively?
Observe what happens in the following scenario when the teacher praises Tom. This example provides some interesting insights:
Tom, a 7th grader who seldom finishes any work, was actually writing the answers to the social studies questions in his notebook. The teacher was so surprised by this unusual behavior that he wanted to acknowledge Tom. “Tom, your answers are really great.” Tom looked at the teacher and sneered, spending the rest of the period with his head down. Jim, who sat near Tom, followed the teacher to the front of the room and asked, “How about my answers; are they great too?”
Several things happened in this classroom which are common results of praise. Tom may have felt the comment was manipulative and insincere. He was not used to praise and handled it poorly. The other student, Jim, may have felt slighted because he did not get praise and stopped working to seek teacher attention. He was not secure enough to judge the quality of his own work and was dependent on teacher opinion.
Praise sets the teacher as the standard by which everything is judged. It can be discouraging for those not receiving it. Failure to earn praise is often interpreted as criticism. Some students ridicule others whose behavior or work is singled out for attention. For students who set exceedingly high standards for themselves and fail to meet them, even sincere praise may sound like scorn or may convince the student the teacher does not have very good judgment.
An alternative to praise is encouragement. It refers to a positive acknowledgment response that focuses on student efforts or specific attributes of work completed. Unlike praise, encouragement does not place judgment on student work or give information regarding its value.
Encouragement is specific. Instead of saying, “Terry, your painting is beautiful,” the teacher can make specific comments about the picture like “Terry, I noticed you used a lot of blue,” or “You worked a long time on that painting.” Judgment about the quality of the painting is left to Terry.
Encouragement is generally given in private. When children’s efforts are acknowledged privately, teachers avoid the potential for embarrassing them and diminishing the self-image of other children through implied comparisons. This encourages the potential for an honest exchange of ideas and an opportunity for the child to talk about his or her work. Otherwise, the children who are not being praised publicly may become discouraged and resentful or the child being praised may fear being criticized some time.
Encouragement focuses on improvement of the process rather than evaluation of a finished product. Instead of saying “good job,” it is more appropriate to say “You did that all by yourself,” or “I noticed you have been working here all morning.” When Sally, a poor reader, reads six new words, it is inappropriate to say, “Sally, you are such a good reader.” She knows she is a poor reader. Rather say, “Sally, you read six new words,” or “Sally, you’re learning to read some new words.”
Sincere, direct comments delivered with a natural voice are encouraging. Using encouragement helps teachers avoid overused phrases such as, “Good job,” “Wow, terrific work!” or “That’s beautiful.” By being more specific and honest, teachers can more easily avoid using contradicting gestures or body language such as frowning. Encouraging statements should be offered with honest feeling. They should be credible and varied to suit the circumstances.
Encouragement does not set children up for failure. Phrases such as “Jimmy, you’re such a nice boy” are not encouraging because it is impossible to be nice all the time. Rather, use a comment such as, “Jimmy, I noticed you shared with Mary today.” Jimmy is left to determine for himself if he was indeed nice. The acknowledgment of the behavior is a form of reinforcement.
Encouragement helps students develop an appreciation of their own behaviors and achievements. Statements such as “You looked excited the way you ___” help the child analyze his own behavior and to better appreciate his own efforts.
Encouragement uses the child’s prior accomplishments as a context. Such statements as “You read by yourself for 15 minutes. That’s longer than the time you spent yesterday,” or “You’re getting faster at matching those shapes” promote a child’s recognition of change and progress.
Encouraging statements do not compare one child to another. Most teachers who say, “You are the quietest walker,” or “Jane is the best clean-up person in the room” intend to acknowledge effort, not to compare children. Yet children may hear the subtle comparison. Encouragement for the same behavior might sound like “You walked quietly, your feet made no sound,” or “Jane, you cleaned up the library and placed all the books in their places on the shelf.”
Encouragement focuses on the effort the child has put into the work. It emphasizes the problem-solving process over the product. Encouragement may actually describe the student’s work or behavior, allowing the students to make their own judgment of the quality. Encouragement recognizes the act, not the actor.
Read the following statements and indicate whether they are praise (P) or encouragement (E).1 Remember, praise gives a value judgment and focuses on the person, while encouragement makes an observation about a behavior:
____ 1. What a good girl to clean up your room.
____ 2. I’m so glad that you enjoy learning.
____ 3. Your story is exciting and uses very colorful language.
____ 4. I’m proud of you for learning your multiplication tables.
____ 5. I’m pleased with your behavior on the field trip.
____ 6. You figured that out all by yourself. Aren’t you pleased?
Through effort you can begin to use more encouraging statements with your children. The results, in turn, will encourage both you and your children!
Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial purposes.
1 1. P, 2. E, 3. E, 4. P, 5. P, 6. E
Elvin Klassen worked as a teacher, principal and district administrator in Canada.