The Power of Encouragement vs. Praise in Teaching and Learning

Power of Our Words

Over the years I’ve conducted multiple interviews and written multiple pieces on the topic of praising kids. Or, more precisely, the perils of praising kids. Many experts and a great deal of research point to the pitfalls of offering children too much praise (“Good job!”), empty praise (“Good job!”), or false praise (“Good job!”). Still, the practice persists.

It appears that offering praise – regardless of the specific words used – is a tough habit to break. The problem, I believe, is that we haven’t known what the alternatives are. We’re all aware that children require encouragement and that extrinsic rewards ultimately aren’t of value. But is there a way to offer encouragement that is honest and has merit? That fosters intrinsic reward?

The answer is yes, and in a lively and thoughtful discussion for Studentcentricity, sponsored by Responsive Classroom, Kristen Vincent, Angela Watson, and Heather Wolpert-Gawron offered many, many suggestions for using praise in constructive ways. Below are their additional recommendations.

From Angela:

Focus your encouragement on things that don’t come naturally to students and that take them out of their comfort zone. Most kids have heard lots of praise for things that they’re good at, but don’t hear as much acknowledgment of their baby steps toward developing new and harder skills.

From Heather:

Give students the chance to show what they know in the way that speaks to them so that you are setting them up for success. Never give false praise, but make sure that they have the chance to really earn your encouragement.

Also, make sure that you give them the language to encourage each other. English teachers can use something like Kelly Gallagher’s RADaR strategy to give students the words to encourage each other with concrete and specific feedback. Give them something like Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling to create a universal vocabulary of how to advise each other.

From Kristen:

Children see and hear everything in a classroom, and they will mirror what they see and hear from the adults around them. When teachers are focused on the positive, students focus on the positive. Encouraging and reinforcing language allows teachers to name concrete, specific behaviors in order to share with students the good things that are happening. Using sentence starters such as, “I notice…” and “I see…” help teachers keep their encouraging comments descriptive, while avoiding personal approval or judgment of the behavior.

When using encouraging language with students, consider asking an open-ended question to extend a student’s thinking. For example, “You’ve been really focused on your work. What’s helping you concentrate today?” or “I’ve noticed that you are remembering to put your name on all your work this week. What’s your strategy for remembering that?” These questions can help students become more aware of their own actions and behaviors that lead to positive behavior and continued improvement.

Finally, teachers can find positives to name in all students, not just the “best” students. Even when children’s work or behavior isn’t where we want it to be, we can see some positive aspects and perhaps some growth if we observe our students carefully. For more on the topic of teacher language, I suggest reading The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton.

For more ideas, click here to listen to the conversation!

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