Advice for parents and teachers: moving away from traditional praise…

When I work with middle and high school teachers about academic engagement, predictable questions (and complaints) about motivation arise:

Why aren’t kids these days motivated?

Why do students just want to do the least amount possible?

Some kids just want me to give them a rubric and tell them what to do!

Why don’t students care about their work?

I wish kids felt more ownership of their work!

There is, of course, no one single answer to these challenges. Traditional grades are part of the problem—kids are trained to care about grades instead of learning. Incentive systems are another problem. They train kids to care about stickers, prizes, and pizza parties at the expense of long-term intrinsic motivation. These systems are widely used in elementary, middle, and high schools and all play a role in the demotivation of our children. It may even be that sometimes the work itself isn’t worth doing and students are right to be disinterested. We should expect kids to be unmotivated when schoolwork feels like an exercise in compliance rather than engagement.

Another culprit, however, begins much earlier–well before children are learning history and chemistry, and involves such a common practice that people rarely question it. The way we typically praise children is actually highly problematic.

We all have positive goals for children.

First, let’s be clear: Everyone who works with children has positive intentions. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or have some other role in the lives of kids, you have positive goals for those children. You likely want them to feel good about themselves in the moment and to develop a long-term sense of positive identity. You want them to be kind, generous, and polite and to develop a deep sense of moral strength and sustain healthy and positive relationships. You want them to be curious and excited to learn right now and to nurture a sense of wonder and passion for learning throughout their lives.

Traditional praise may do more harm than good.

One of the most commonly used tools for supporting these positive traits has been the use of praise. On the playground, a parent may exclaim, “Good job!” after their child goes down the slide, or “Great job!” as they pour sand from a scoop into a bucket. Similarly, in a classroom you may hear an adult say, “I love your picture! You’re such a great artist!” as a child plays with finger paints.

Surprisingly, this kind of praise can actually do more harm than good. While we want it to show love, it may send the message that our affection is conditional—we love children more when they do what we like. While we use praise to build children’s confidence, it can actually lead them to a fixed mindset where they shy away from challenges, afraid to make mistakes. It can even feel manipulative—as though we’re trying to control children through our language. Studies have shown that praise can decrease motivation and even decrease performance.

Here are five ways to move away from traditional praise. 

If we’re going to move away from traditional praise such as “good job” and “I love the way you…”, we should have some alternatives in mind. First off, it’s not as simple as it may at first sound. A teacher I was working with recently admitted to me, “I don’t actually have to think when I say, ‘Good job!’ I’m going to have to be more thoughtful to say something else.”

So, the language you use in its place will depend on the situation—what the child is doing and what your goals are for your language. Here are five ideas to consider:

1. Be more specific.

Instead of generic praise, which doesn’t offer detail about what was good, observe and notice specific attributes of children’s work or behavior that are positive. This helps the child understand why what they did was good.

Instead of… Try this…
“Good job!”
“Awesome tower!”
“Great counting!”
“The colors you used in your painting are so bright!”
“Look at that tower! It’s 10 blocks high!”
“You just counted all the way to 12!”

2. Speak in the second person.

When we praise children in the first person, we may accidentally send the message that their job is to please us. Instead, we can reinforce children’s senses of accomplishment and intrinsic motivation by speaking in the second person.

Instead of… Try this…
“I love the way you cleaned up all of your toys!”
“I like how you went down the slide!”
“I love your singing!”
“You cleaned up all of the toys! That makes the room look clean!”
“You went down that slide so fast!”
“You really love to sing!”

3. Ask questions to help children reflect.

We may rob children of the chance to think for themselves when we are the ones praising what they do. Instead, we might help them think more deeply by asking them open-ended questions.

Instead of… Try this…
“Awesome job putting that puzzle together.”
“Great job at writing your name!”
“How did you put that puzzle together? Which part was hard?”
“How did you remember to write all of the letters in your name?”

4. Instead of judging children, celebrate with them.

Rethinking how we give praise doesn’t mean we can’t express joy with children when they achieve milestones or accomplish successes. Instead of judging children, we can focus on celebrating with them.

Instead of… Try this…
“Good job!”
“Nice jumping!”
“I’m so proud of you!”
“Congratulations! You did it!”
“Wow! You jumped over that log!”
“Are you proud of yourself?”

5. Don’t talk. Observe. Be present.

When did we get the idea that we have to fill the air with talk? Sometimes, we should also consider not talking at all. Instead of feeling like it’s our job to be a cheerleader or an ego-booster, what if we simply sat down on the floor with children and watched them play and work? To simply be with children and to give them our attention is a great act of love.

Instead of… Try this…
Being distracted (phone, TV, etc.)
Be present

Sometimes parents and teachers worry that if they don’t praise, children will think that they don’t love them. When I teach demonstration lessons in classrooms and teachers observe my language, they often notice how positively children respond to language that is observational rather than judgmental. Teachers themselves notice how warm and supportive and genuinely child-centered it feels.

So, go ahead. Give it a try. Pick one small bit of traditional praise you use and try coming up with some alternatives. Your children will reap the long-term benefits!

To learn more about effective teacher talk, check out the book What We Say and How We Say It Matter.