5 Ways to Effectively Deliver Praise to Children

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Praising children for positive behaviours is a powerful way to teach them how to cooperate with others and follow social rules and norms. Praise, especially from parents, teachers and other role models, tends to be rewarding for children, and when behaviour is rewarded it happens more and more over time.

While there is plenty of research supporting the idea that praise is helpful for increasing the chance that your child will follow your instructions or comply with requests, there is also research suggesting that it can have no effect on compliance or even decrease the likelihood of compliance. What we can draw from this is that the way that praise is delivered will be important in achieving positive outcomes.

Here are five proven ways to deliver praise in ways that function as a powerful and effective reward, promotes strong relationships and positive behaviours in children.

1. Describe What You See Rather than Evaluating What You See

Evaluative praise is the kind of praise that most people are used to giving. “Good job!” “You’re such a fast runner!” “You did really well on the exam!” “Your handwriting is beautiful!” These are all examples of evaluative praise.

This type of praise attaches a characteristic (e.g. beautiful, good, fast) to the child. It is only natural for us to want to provide a positive judgment while we give praise, as surely the judgment is what warrants the praise? It’s that reasoning that can make well-intentioned evaluative praise unhelpful for children.

Some children can internalise the message that they should only feel good about themselves if they perform well. How should they feel if they don’t perform well? Evaluative praise may also create more dependence on others for rewards and reinforcement than descriptive praise.

Descriptive praise is non-judgmental. It’s a thoughtful observation about what the child has done and can include how the child may be feeling about what they have done, e.g. “You stacked so many blocks on top of each other! You look really pleased about what you have built”. It gives positive attention to the behaviour and it teaches children to notice their own feelings about what they have done.


2. Be Specific Rather Than General

Specific praise puts the rewarded behaviour in focus. Although it may be obvious to the care-giver why they are giving the praise, it may not be so obvious to the child. Specific praise not only feels good, it also gives the child information about what it is that they are doing that is helpful or on the right track. Descriptive praise, by its nature is specific so by remembering to describe, you are covering both bases!


3. Praise For Effort Rather Than Achievement

Use praise to recognise improvement, perseverance and engagement with a task. Persevering in the face of obstacles, attending closely, trying to learn and improve are all qualities that can be more valuable than overall cognitive ability or academic achievement in the outside, adult world.

Praise for effort reminds children that these attributes are valuable, helpful and admirable in and of themselves, regardless of the outcome. However, it is important to be genuine with praise for effort - look out for it and give it when it is actually earned.


4. Pair Verbal Praise With Positive Attention

The research indicates that verbal praise is more likely to shape positive behaviours in children when it is paired with non-verbal praise, or positive attention. Examples of non-verbal praise include smiling and physical affection if appropriate. Another benefit of descriptive praise is that it communicates to the child that you are watching what they are doing and noticing them (i.e. you are giving them positive non-verbal attention as well as verbal praise).  


5. Praise Soon After Positive Behaviour

Praising soon after the behaviour will better help your child connect the praise to the behaviour. You don’t want to praise every positive behaviour. It may not be helpful to praise behaviours that you would expect from the child as a minimum standard. Set the bar for praise at a reasonable level that you know is achievable for that child but not too easy.

At the same time, it can become all too easy to conceptualise all positive behaviour as “what is expected” and “how you should be behaving anyway”. When this happens, you could have a situation where the child learns that unproductive behaviours draw attention and foster connections with care-givers more so than positive behaviours. So it is important to recognise and celebrate positive behaviours so that more unhelpful behaviours do not dominate the classroom or home environment.

Praise is an important part of connecting with your child. If you would like more information or practical strategies for helping your child, please contact us today to make an appointment.


About the Author

This article was written by Anuja Ng. She holds a Master of Psychology (Clinical) from the University of New South Wales and was awarded the University Medal for Psychology. Anuja is dedicated to working collaboratively with her clients to understand their goals and to develop and implement an effective treatment plan that is tailored to the client's needs and capitalises on their strengths.