Real praise – the kind that actually makes a difference – comes from genuinely noticing when someone puts effort into something or has managed to complete something they wouldn’t normally manage to do and then describing what they have done. Giving thoughtful, specific recognition demonstrates that you are taking real notice in what they are doing – in a way that a throw- away ‘ Well done’ doesn’t.
If you want to improve the behaviour of students using praise, the comments you use must be in full recognition of what they have done right. By that I mean praise needs to be specific and descriptive. Like this:
Jonny! Stand back and look at what you’ve done … This is a fantastic portrait! What really sets this apart is the way you’ve made that eye come to life by showing the light reflecting here. That really makes it look realistic. And the texture you’ve got on the hair is superb.
Jonny, you’ve sat quietly for the last ten minutes and got on with your work. That’s great because I’ve been able to go and help other students and I haven’t needed to speak at you or remind you to get on. Well done, you’ve shown you can work independently!
If a friend was dieting you wouldn’t wait until they had reached their target weight before making positive comments, would you? You would help them along the way with encouragement because acknowledging their effort helps them stick in and persevere and, importantly, it can help them to overcome or avoid frustration.
By focusing on effort rather than achievement we can praise a student even if they fail, and that’s very important. Waiting for a child to succeed in a task before praising them means missing out on untold opportunities to encourage them along the way.
Here are a couple of ways you can praise effort to encourage students:
Jonny, you are working really, really well on this. What you’ve done so far is spot on. Just keep going using the same technique and you’ll have it done in no time.
You’ve tried so hard on this, Jonny. It’s great to see you putting so much effort in – you’ve really showed tremendous determination and that’s an important strength to develop.
Real praise comes from the heart (flattery comes from the teeth) and kids are very quick to spot someone who is just trying to manipulate them with fake positive comments. If you want real transformations to take place you have to make praise genuine – it’s got to be sincere. That means you have to be hyper-vigilant to spot what might be very small positive improvements – just steps in the right direction. These are the things we need to jump on. We have to mark those moments because when we do, there is a good chance of them repeating that good behaviour.
Some students (a surprisingly large proportion) don’t like receiving praise in front of other people, so you have more chance of your praise being well- received if you give it one to one in private. Catch them at the beginning of the lesson before they go into class, at the end of the lesson or in lesson time (but out of earshot of the rest of the students). It only has to be a short conversation but even 30 seconds giving some sincere, heartfelt praise is going to be time well spent.
Some teachers lavish praise on students for literally anything and everything in the hope that the sheer quantity of positive words will raise their self- esteem and motivate them. But praise is more effective when we get students to stop and reflect on what they have done. By getting them to pause and think about their efforts, we encourage them to recognise and evaluate the feelings associated with positive action. If they enjoy these feelings there is more chance they will want to repeat the actions – for themselves and not just to please someone else. One way we can do this is to simply ask a question about their efforts:
"Jonny, stop and look at your work a minute. Tell me what you think of what you’ve done today."
"Hey Jonny, now that everything has settled down, how do you feel to have got over that difficult problem? What skills did you use to resolve it? How does it feel knowing that you can use those same skills next time you are confronted with a problem like this?"
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