“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines— rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions.” (Haim Ginott, 1965, p. 39)
Praise researchers have set up various camps for decades. Some maintain that praise encourages student behavior and motivation, advising teachers to “reward the student with verbal reinforcement when she or he exhibits desired behavior” (Dev, 1997, p 16).
Others believe that it can damage motivation–and in some cases, even become downright manipulative. Alfie Kohn contends that praise “leads [students] to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval” (5 Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job). They argue that “Praise can create excessive pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce perceived autonomy.” (Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M.R. “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis,” p. 776).
Despite these opposing camps, still other researchers examine specific variables of praise that can impact students’ intrinsic motivation both beneficially and detrimentally. In their comprehensive praise review, Henderlong and Lepper conclude, “rather than asking whether praise enhances intrinsic motivation, it is far more useful to ask about the conditions under which this is likely to occur” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Some of those conditions include:
- Sincerity: honest and specific evaluation
- Performance Attributions: focusing on controllable processes vs. student ability/overly simple tasks
- Perceived Autonomy: focusing on students’ autonomy vs. our control (finding, in fact, that no praise has a better effect than controlling praise)
- Competence and Self-Efficacy: focusing on information on performance vs. social comparison
- Standards & Expectations: focusing on specific praise on appropriately-challenging tasks vs. praise for too-easy or too-difficult tasks
Be mindful of the growth-mindset
Never praise students for what they are right now. Elevate your sights to the vision of where their efforts can take them; if your praise focuses merely on their current abilities, they will be less likely to view that potential for growth in themselves.
“I could tell you worked so hard to figure out that math problem. Way to stick with it even when it was tricky!” instead of “You’re so good at math!”
Vague statements like “good job” can undermine student motivation because it does not offer concrete support for a student’s effort, nor does it recognize their personal reasons for pursuing the task. On the other hand, a detailed description becomes more useful feedback.
“Nice–when you made eye contact and responded constructively to your group members during that activity, it showed them respect and helped your whole group have a good discussion.” instead of “Good group discussion!”
Make the positive reinforcement more of an observation than explicit praise.
Set the tone of optimism by noticing the good more often than the bad. This helps create a positive atmosphere not only because students know you’re not going to harp on every error, but also because they’ll tend to pay more attention to the good things happening around them, too.
“I notice that Carlos is stacking everyone else’s chairs for them.”
Connect the praise to genuine principles of respectful relationships.
Really, everything else hinges on this one. As Henderlong and Lepper concluded, “…provided that it is perceived as sincere, praise is likely to enhance intrinsic motivation when attributional messages prevent maladaptive inferences, when autonomy is promoted, when perceived competence and self-efficacy are heightened without undue use of social comparison, and when realistic standards and expectations are conveyed” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Nothing else will quite matter if your students sense ulterior motives.
“Wow, when Becca turned her chair around when I was sharing instructions, I could tell she was offering not just her attention, but her respect for my time, because her body language showed it. I really appreciate that.”
Genuinely thank students for their efforts to create a supportive classroom environment
They should know that you understand that it’s not easy to bring 25+ people together in a cooperative, positive, and safe learning environment every day. Give them the tools to help by verbalizing the kinds of choices that support learning. Express your appreciation for those efforts frequently, reminding them that we’re all in this together!
“When Johnny was sharing his story, I saw Ashley put down her papers and look up at him. It’s not easy for anyone to get up and share, so thank you for helping Johnny feel more comfortable with sharing with such an attentive and respectful audience!”
Don’t just use positive reinforcement as a misbehavior redirect
Notice and point out times when the entire class is pitching in to help the classroom run smoothly, and explain the difference you can feel–and ask them if they can feel it, too!
“During that transition, everyone put away the math cubes and moved back to their desks for wrap up immediately! I love that we have plenty of time to discuss our math noticings now–thank you for helping our class run smoothly!”
Seriously. Use a class list on a clipboard and tally off names if you need to. Otherwise, you and your students both know you’re going to wind up primarily noticing the same 5 line-of-sight people every day.
Get rid of tangible extrinsic rewards that often accompany praise
These devalue the positive attention given because students are less likely to internalize the value of the behavior or task for its own sake. Keep close tabs on your extrinsic rewards in general, and always be willing to ask yourself the tough questions.
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