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As parents and educators we praise kids to express our approval, commendation and affection. We use it to boost their confidence and self-esteem. Accordingly to research, praise is a highly effective form of positive reinforcement. Moreover, when used correctly it promotes a growth mindset in young children. However, as uncovered by recent studies, incorrect use of praise can fuel problematic traits such as ‘false growth mindset’ in children. Let’s take a closer look at why we should praise kids and how to do it in the most effective way.

Praise can facilitate self-evaluation and self-awareness

Praise is essentially a form of positive feedback which is crucial for the learning and development of children. Through it we can highlight their strengths and make them aware of things they are good at. Overtime, praise will help children to generate self-awareness, as well as encourage them to self-evaluate and self-assess. In return this will support them to become the best versions of themselves and embrace lifelong learning.   

As parents we are most likely to say “Wow, great job!”, when our little ones show us a picture they drew. If they sit through a dinner at a restaurant or lend a hand with chores we’ll probably tell them “Good boy/girl!”. This may on some level reinforce their good behaviour, however both the child and the adult appear to be in autopilot mode. The focus is completely on the final outcome and not the process. The key takeaway for the child is how to seek the approval and validation of the adult.

Thus, the next time your child does a drawing you could say, “Wow, you look like you had fun drawing. Tell me more about it?”. Furthermore, you could continue to ask them questions such as “Do you like painting?” or “How do you feel about this nice cat you drew?”. Through this form of praise you are first and foremost encouraging the child to think about their actions and decisions. Secondly you are enabling them to evaluate themselves and their skills. Finally, you are helping them to feel empowered and realize that good behaviour is a positive course of action.

Praise can promote a growth mindset

‘Growth mindset’ is believing that our skills and capabilities can be refined through hard work, practice and determination. It is the opposite of ‘fixed mindset’, which is believing our strengths and talents are inborn and cannot be nurtured. Thus, by praising children for their efforts we can motivate them to be more engaged and persistent. As a result praise can help them develop a growth mindset as well as discover the joy of learning.

However, as parents and teachers we often fall into the trap of dishing out empty praises. Regardless of if children’s efforts lead to progression or not, we are quick to nurse their self-esteem with a generic blanket of praise. This is problematic for a multitude of reasons.

  • Children often see right through when they are given praise for something they didn’t deserve or earn. Therefore, it ends up being a mere consolation prize.
  • Moreover, praise given without basis can also create a ‘false growth mindset’. Children end up believing they have a growth mindset all the time, when in reality we all have a mixture of both growth and fixed mentalities. Thus, this prevents them from identifying and addressing factors that trigger a fixed mindset.
  • Finally, when children fail we may be quick to reassure them through praise by saying for instance, “Don’t worry, not everyone is good at math. You’re good at many other things!”. Unfortunately, in this case we are holding them back from using this failure as an opportunity to learn, while also promoting the problematic fixed mindset.

Process praise

Therefore, what we must do is focus on ‘process praise’. This means putting emphasis on efforts and behaviours that led to learning progression, positive outcomes or success, when praising.

We should help children understand that progress requires not just hard work but also good strategies and resources. Moreover, we must convey that failure is something that supports learning. Thus, what we should tell them is, “I know you tried hard at this math test. So what can we do next? Let’s talk to your teacher and see how we can learn to work out these problems better”. This type of praise prompts children to be innovative, explore and discover new ways of tackling the challenges they face in life.

Using praise as a reward

Praise as a reward is an effective way to recognize and appreciate positive actions and behaviours of children. It instantaneously motivates them, as well as boosts their self-confidence and self esteem. Moreover, it helps them to gain the experience of success and discover the joy of accomplishment.  

It is however important to bear in mind that the line between using praise as a reward and a bribe is a slippery slope. When a small child is throwing a tantrum in a supermarket we may be tempted to say “C’mon now, you’re a big boy and really good too. So let’s go”. On the other hand we might also find ourselves saying, “Good girl for behaving well at grandma’s”. However, in the first case the praise is a bribe to keep the child calm. In the second case it is impersonal and makes no indication of emphasizing what exactly the child did well.

For praise to be effective and initiate positive reinforcement it must be consistent, fair and specific to the child. It should demonstrate how ‘you’ specifically appreciate the ‘child’s behaviour or action’. For instance you could say, “I really liked how you were polite and talked nicely to everyone at grandma’s house. Thank you!”. This way not only will they feel rewarded for their positive behaviour, but also learn how to express their own feelings in a positive manner. Praise is a versatile and effective way to support children to develop a strong mindset. It empowers them to learn, grow and remain unfazed by challenges they face. By adapting few simple tricks and traits, we can use praise to support the learning and development of children in a holistic way.

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