3 Steps to Effective Praise

While I was studying education at university, positive reinforcement was the most commonly used theory in the classrooms. Praising became the best method to improve children’s motivation and school performance.

After my son was born, I put this “knowledge” to use, praising him when he did something good and trying to ignore the behaviour I didn’t consider right. Phrases like “good job”, “well done” and similar became my go-to response:

  • Noah: "Look, mummy!" (when painting)

  • Me: "Good job! I love the little dog!"

I didn’t see anything wrong with it at the beginning. In fact, I thought I was doing a “good job” myself by sticking to the principles of positive reinforcement and avoiding punishment. I never even considered that I was over-praising my child until I read a couple of books that briefly touched on the subject and I witnessed, on my own, how this can negatively affect a child.

When my son started school he adjusted really quickly, he loved it (and still does) but some days he comes home quite upset. Luckily for me, he is really open about his feelings and he started telling me what was upsetting him, his answer broke my heart.

  • Noah: "Ben Z. can run faster than I do, Connor can paint better than me, Mattias can count higher than me, etc."

Then it came to me: all these years of praising him, while boosting his self-esteem, also created a false sense of superiority over the rest of his friends. He thought that he could do many things better than others but suddenly realized, for better or worse, that this isn’t true.

I did some research and when reading into it, I noticed that he had some traits of children that have been over-praised: giving up easily when the task proves harder than normal, reeling on us for approval rather than his own judgement, constantly seeking praise etc.

It was my own fault. But like many other mistakes I make, it served its purpose: it taught me a lesson, and now, while I still praise him, I do it much less and in an effective way.

1. I acknowledge him without praising: Sometimes children just want to know you are paying attention to what they are doing. A simple “I see that you …..” is more than enough.

Me: “I see that you tidied up your toys. Thank you!”

2. I tend to praise the effort, not the result: I strongly believe that by acknowledging the effort over the result, it encourages the child‘s intrinsic motivation toward more challenging tasks. I still try to avoid the aforementioned phrases like “well done”.

Noah: “Mummy look at my painting!”

Me: “I can see you worked really hard staying inside the lines!”

3. I like to use meaningful words: I try not to use vague phrases like “that’s nice of you” or similar. Nice is such an abstract concept for a small child to understand.

Noah: "thank you."

Me: "I like your manners."

To summarize, I only use “good job” when I want to reinforce one behaviour over another, and even so I try to keep away from saying it too much. Like everything in life, it is about finding the right balance between two extremes.

Note: If you haven’t read the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” - it might be a good idea. You shouldn’t assume that everything stated in the book is how it must be, but it makes you think about the way we talk and interact with our children.

If you are interested about the topic and want to learn more, Alfie Kohn has many interesting articles about it: Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”, The Risks of Rewards . As well as Krista's article on Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement which helps clarify how you might use positive reinforcement to curb undesired behaviours.