Praise in the classroom

High Praise in the classroom, is it good?

Praise is one of the most powerful tools in our teaching toolbox, no matter the age group we are teaching (yes, including adults). Whether you’re a teacher or a parent helping your child, how we praise can engage or demoralise, empower or cause learned helplessness, create confident or risk-averse learners. Yet the way we praise is often overlooked. After all, isn’t all praise good?

The answer, of course, is no, it isn’t. Certain types of praise in the classroom can limit the student’s learning and can even be counterproductive. When observing lessons, I always cringe when I hear a student told they are a ‘good boy/girl’ when they get something right. What does this tell the child? It tells them that getting things right makes them ‘good’. It puts a value judgement on their self-worth, or ‘goodness’, based on their academic performance. So what? This seems harmless. Telling a student he or she is ‘good’ cannot hurt. But it can. What you are not saying, but implying, is that getting the answer wrong makes them ‘bad’. That failure to be correct makes you ‘bad’. That their ‘goodness’ is somehow diminished if they cannot get it right. This may seem a big leap, but make no mistake, these subliminal messages are understood by our students, especially children. They are carefully interpreting and predicting what we want from them all the time, particularly younger learners who are highly motivated by the teacher’s approval. We may not intend it, but the consequence is we create risk averse learners. Students who will sit quietly rather than contribute, who will remain silent for fear of failure. Risk avoidance and fear of failure are hugely detrimental to the learning process. This is not to mention the comparisons students draw with classmates. ‘She gets told she’s a ‘good girl’ all the time, but I hardly ever hear it. She gets it right more often than me, that means she’s a really good girl.’ This is what goes on in the minds of many students with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) on a daily basis, often with devastating impacts on their self-esteem.

Another thing I often observe is teachers making comments, both written and verbal, that is far too general. Comments like ‘Good work!’ ‘Well done’ and ‘Fantastic’ may carry a positive message, but do little to direct students. Often times, students are left thinking ‘Great! But what made this piece of work fantastic? How do I do that again?’ The other problem with this type of praise in the classroom is that it’s often made about an overall piece of work, rather than specific aspects of the student’s work. Again, students with specific learning difficulties suffer most from this type of praise in the classroom, as their overall work rarely meets the year level standard expected by the teacher, even if they have worked very hard to improve certain parts they know the teacher wants them to work on, such as handwriting, punctuation, setting out or spelling. Countless pieces of carefully written work get dismissed instantly based on messy handwriting alone, despite excellent content and improvement of the individual student. This can leave our dyspraxic, dyslexic and dysgraphic students feeling very demoralised. It may be surprising, but this type of praise in the classroom also holds back the gifted and talented students, as it creates a fixed mindset. “This work is fantastic. I’m done.” But nobody is ever done, no matter their age or stage of life. Learning is a truly lifelong process. There is always something more to be done. That doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge progress, but it does mean we should not use a system that reinforces the idea of an end goal. Seeing learning as an open-ended process, with everyone working toward their own goals empowers all learners.

Another type often used is the ‘face reading’ method. This is where the child guesses randomly and watches the unsuspecting teacher’s face for a ‘light up message’ that they got the answer right. This is usually followed by a ‘Good boy!’ Or a ‘Well done!’ Praising students in the classroom using body language and positive facial expressions can cause learned helplessness, and our SpLD students are highly attuned to these ‘clues’. It also fosters a need for extrinsic validation or a belief that the teacher’s excitement is the aim, rather than an intrinsic sense of pride and motivation for one’s own learning goals. This doesn’t mean we need to be personalities, stone cold robots, but we do need to take care that our excitement is not the cue for success.

Praising the unpraisable.

In our effort to be friendly and encouraging, we teachers can often fall into the trap of being too lavish with praise. The effect is that praise is devalued, and becomes ineffective. As with praising too generally, the students will do or not do certain behaviours to get the teacher’s approval. They will come to rely on getting verbal validation for almost everything, and will soon feel that little effort is expected of them. This leads to disengaged students who will do the bare minimum and expect a pat on the back anyway. Not all efforts need to be noticed, not all workpieces need to be praised. Praise should be reserved for when genuine progress, effort or personal attributes are noticed. Never fall into the trap of machine gunning praise at students thinking it will encourage them. It won’t!

So how do we praise children well?

Praise needs to be timely, targeted and explicit. The majority of praise is best given verbally, during the lesson, so that the student can do more of what they’re doing well, or improve on another aspect. Leaving praise until writing marking comments impacts learning less effectively, and turns marking into a laborious task. When scrutinising work samples, it’s always reassuring to see lots of ‘feedback given in class’ written in books, next to learning objective achieved / not achieved. Making running marks and notes on the students’ pages during the lesson also means the bulk of marking will be completed within the lesson. Win / win.

Good praise in the classroom is focussed on specific aspects of a child’s work. This is particularly important for learners with specific learning difficulties. An example of good praise might be ‘Well done, Thomas! I can see you went back to check your work and added some more punctuation. See if you can add three more punctuation marks.’ For students with ADHD, an example might be ‘I see you’ve concentrated for five minutes, and that means you’ve reached your IEP target once today already. Are you proud of yourself? How many more times do you think you can do that?’ Or for a dyspraxic student ‘I see you have rubbed out your incorrect answers rather than writing the numbers over the top. That will make your work much easier to read and to be marked correct. Now I’d like you to recheck these sums.’ It is focussed on effort, an improvement on the student’s own previous work (NOT age expected norms or the student’s ability in comparison to his classmates) and independent thinking. When a student contributes a mistaken thought – praise the thinking. ‘Oh, what a wonderful idea! I would have never thought of it that way. On this example, that’s not quite right, it’s like this… but good thinking!’ It lets the student know you have noticed their resilience and stamina, and whether they have reached the specific learning objective of the lesson. (yes, every good lesson has a clear, measurable objective that is communicated to the students). It tells the student explicitly and with instant feedback what has been done well, and provides clear information about the next steps. Watch the student engage and want to work more when you give this type of praise. He or she suddenly feels validated, but at the same time, knows what to do next. This builds independence and self-confidence, something we aim to foster in all of our students. If everyone in the class has met a goal and has another step to work on, no one is ‘behind’, and no one is ‘finished’. Instead, each student competes with themselves to reach new levels. This method of praising builds a growth mindset.

Good praise in the classroom is:

  • timely, specific, and targeted at the individual’s goals and ability level
  • followed by a specific prompt about what to improve next
  • free from value judgements
  • aimed at fostering the personal attributes we want to see in our students
  • encourages the student to engage in learning for their own learning’s sake, rather than seeking teacher approval

It is important to remember that praise is an invaluable behaviour management tool. Many newly qualified teachers will despair ‘I feel like I’m nagging them all the time!’ ‘They don’t listen to me!’ My advice is always the same – try using only praise for an entire lesson. Use no corrective behaviour management. For example, if Harry is not following the instructions quickly, praise Felix sitting next to him, with clear direction about what he’s doing well. “Well done, Felix, for getting your ruler and pencil out so quickly. I can see you’re ready to learn. Let me see who else is ready.’ This reminds Harry what you are looking for, and offers him the chance to correct his own behaviour. When Harry follows the prompt, he gets praised too, and so his self-esteem is raised, rather than lowered. He has been offered a chance to succeed, and to independently decide to conform, rather than being scolded and micromanaged. Again, the praise needs to be specific. Saying ‘good boy’ to Felix will have none of the desired effects. Harry may have forgotten the instructions, or in any case, will read between the lines, and decide he is ‘bad’ because he did not get ready quickly.

Praising effort, ideas, good thinking, contribution to discussions, teamwork, resilience and independent problem solving builds students who are willing to apply themselves, take risks, and think for themselves. It lets them know that failure is not only ok, but a necessary part of the learning process, and that what is truly important is the way we approach learning. We must praise the qualities we wish to see in our students, rather than outcomes. Praising academic achievement reinforces the self-esteem of high ability students, but can stunt their willingness to continue working for even better results. On the flip side, praising academic achievement demoralises weaker students, as well as students with specific learning difficulties.

Try using some of these praise tips in your teaching or parent homework help sessions, and please, BANISH good boy/girl from your teaching vocabulary. Age appropriate academic achievement does not make a child ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Take care you are not sending them the message that it does.

You might also like my post on 5 simple ways to support someone with Dyslexia at home, school or in the workplace.