One of the most deeply held beliefs of many educators is that we should praise students—a lot. Many of us were taught, early on in our careers, that the more we praise our students, the better they’ll feel, and the better they feel, the harder they’ll work. It seems to make intuitive sense. But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if certain kinds of praise actually do more harm than good? It may seem almost sacrilegious to contemplate such an idea, but there are several potential downsides to praise that we should consider. Before we do so, I’d like to highlight a very important idea. As educators (teachers, coaches, support staff, parents, etc.) we all have positive intentions for our children. We want them to grow up to be strong, independent, self-motivated, collaborative, and confident. We want them to love learning, to tackle tough challenges, and to be self-motivated. And yet, the way we praise children may run counter to these very same goals.
So, let’s consider some of our common goals and explore how traditional praise may be counterproductive. Let’s also consider some alternatives—ways we can support our positive goals for students through effective language!
Some Praise Stunts Independence and Self-Motivation
We want students to feel a sense of ownership for their work. We are hoping that they’ll be driven from within—that they’ll be self-motivated. We want them to feel a sense if investment and commitment to their learning. So why do we thank children for doing their work? Have you ever considered that by thanking students we may imply that they have done us a favor—that they have been working for us instead of themselves? Our intention is probably to help students feel a sense of pride in their work or effort and to feel appreciated and acknowledged, but how can they feel self-motivated if we send messages that they are working for us instead of themselves?
Instead, Boost Student Ownership and Self-Motivation
|“Thank you so much for putting in so much effort on that last writing assignment!”||“Wow! You really put in a lot of effort on that last writing assignment!”|
|“I appreciate the way you all engaged in a debate while still being respectful!”||“You were just able to engage in a debate while still being respectful—that can be hard to do, but you did it!”|
|“Thanks so much for doing such a great job on that research project!”||“You put together such a complete and polished research project. Congratulations!”|
Some Praise Turns Kids into Teacher-Pleasers
One of my greatest frustrations as a teacher is when my students feel overly reliant on me—when they appear helpless or seem to need constant validation. “Mr. Anderson, is this good enough?” was a constant refrain from my fourth graders. It took me a while to realize that I was training them to be dependent on me and my approval through the way I lavished praise on them. “I love the way you’re using such colorful description in your story!” I praised. “I like the way you’re working so hard on that math problem,” I encouraged. I especially used this kind of language with behavior. “I like how everyone is walking so quietly in the hall!” I cooed as we paused as a corner.
If we want our students to become more thoughtful and independent thinkers, if we want them to learn to look at their own work and accurately self-assess their strengths and challenges, if we want them to do the right things for the right reasons, we need to stop training them to be teacher-pleasers with this kind of praise. Consider how the alternatives in the chart below emphasize what we’re really going for!
Instead, Boost Independence and Self-Assessment
|“I love the way you’re using such colorful description in your story!”||“What do you think about the description you’ve been using in your story?”|
|“I like the way you’re working so hard on that math problem.”||“You have been working so hard on that math problem. What strategies are you using?”|
|“Great job walking so quietly in the hall!”||“When we walk quietly in the hall like this, we help other learners in other classrooms stay focused on their work!”|
Some Praise Puts Students in a Fixed Mindset
Few ideas have come along in education in the past few decades that have made quite the splash as has Carol Dweck’s research and writing about a growth mindset. And of course, we all want our students to develop one—to have the understanding and belief that hard work and effort (not simply innate talent or abilities) are the keys to success. Yet traditional praise—where children are told how smart (or artistic, mathematical, etc.) they are, tends to do the reverse. When a student hears, “You’re such an amazing mathematician. You’ve definitely got the math gene!” the message is clear. You either are or aren’t able to do math. Now, to work hard in math may be seen as evidence that you’re not smart—after all, if you’re brilliant in math, it must all come easily, right? Also, making mistakes may now been seen as evidence that you don’t have the math gene after all. Students may shy away from taking risks and trying hard challenges—the exact opposite effect than the one we’re going for!
Instead, Develop a Growth Mindset
|“You’re such a great musician. You make everything look so easy!”||“You must practice so much to play that well!”|
|“You’re such a talented writer.”||“This story has such depth. Characters are well-developed and the plot is complex. How did you come up with some of your ideas?”|
|“Wow! You solved that problem so quickly. You’re so smart!”||“That problem went pretty well for you. How did you solve it?”|
Some Praise Raises Anxiety and Resentment
In today’s schools, where students are required to work together more than ever before, it’s especially important that we create classrooms and schools that are safe and collaborative. However, there’s a specific kind of commonly used praise that actually does the reverse. It sets students up as competitors instead of collaborators. And it’s a form of praise that many of us were taught to use in teacher preparation programs or through professional development trainings.
Manipulative praise is used to highlight the good work or behavior of one student to try and influence the work or behavior of others. “I like the way Josephine is sitting so quietly,” we might say, while actually looking at Markus, who is giggling and rolling on the floor. “I see that Brian and Shannon are using their time wisely,” we announce as we glare disapprovingly at the rest of the class. This kind of emotional manipulation is common and harmful. It builds a sense of competition in the classroom, where students feel compared to each other all of the time, and it can lead to resentment and anger. Instead, let’s speak directly to students who need redirection or talk in general terms when noticing that some students are on track and others aren’t.
Instead, Create Safe and Collaborative Classrooms
|“I like the way Josephine is sitting so quietly.”||“Markus, it’s time to sit up and be ready to listen.”|
|“I see that Brian and Shannon are using their time wisely.”||“Remember to use your time wisely during our work period today.”|
|“I love how Stacy’s and Seth’s tables are working together so well!”||“A couple of tables are working together well. If your table is struggling, remember to check our chart with tips for good group work.”|
It bears repeating. We all have the best of intentions. We want our students to feel safe, engaged, and empowered. We want our students to develop a growth mindset and to engage in good work and ethical behavior—and to do so for the right reasons. We should examine the way we praise our students and check to see if our messages match our intentions. There’s a good chance that we can all find at least one small language habit that could use some tweaking. Even small changes can have positive impacts on our students!
If you’re intrigued by these idea, you might be interested in checking out my latest book, which is all about realigning our language with our positive intentions: What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk That Improves Student Learning and Behavior.