The Power of Authentic Praise in the Classroom: My Personal Experience

I had a student once, you know the student. The one that pushes buttons, tests boundaries, and always seems to say just the right things to upset you. He was difficult to have in the classroom and a challenge for every teacher, resource aid, and adult that walked the halls of the school. In my attempt to reach this student and use him as a powerful player in the classroom, not a distraction, I found research on praising in a positive, genuine way and the impact it can have on students. 

In short, I found in my research that we should be praising students genuinely, immediately, unexpectedly, and both publicly and privately. It should also be honing in on your own feelings, not said in a general sense. For example, instead of saying, “Good job on your book report” if you phrase it more in a sense of, “I was really impressed by your book report, I can see how hard you worked on it.” it will come across as more personal and elicit more feelings of accomplishment in the student. After coming forward with these findings, I was ready to apply them in my classroom with not only my difficult student but all of my students. 

It started slowly, I gave authentic, specific praise as often as possible, but whole class and individual students. However, I found that it was harder to give this type of praise to the harder students that didn’t seem to naturally follow directions like the rest of the class. 

One day, my particularly hard student (we’ll call him Johnny) was having an especially rough day. On the way out to recess, I saw him shove a notebook I had never seen before into his desk. “Hey Johnny, can I see that really fast?” Instantly he was defensive and hesitant because he was expecting to be reprimanded for it. I reassured him he wasn’t in trouble and just wanted to take a peek at something I found interesting on the cover. 

Right away I saw incredible artwork cover the front. I flipped through a few pages and found sheets and sheets of dedicated time and effort. My initial thought was that if he can spend this much time creating something like this, why isn’t he spending five minutes on his math homework? But then I had to change my thinking. 

“Oh, Johnny. This is absolutely outstanding! Did you create this all on your own? I love the attention to detail you gave this drawing.” 

He instantly was quiet and his cheeks red with embarrassment. I could tell fairly fast that this type of praise was not common for him, he wasn’t sure how to handle it. I knew it was something that needed to become more and more common with my speaking not only to him, but again, every single student I came in contact with. 

I started putting in extra effort into praising my students in an authentic way and started seeing a difference in my students. 

They started trying a little harder. 

They saw the hard work they were putting forth too. 

They started complimenting their peers and even myself in the same way.

Our classroom became an even more enjoyable, positive place. And on top of that, my little Johnny had a different attitude about learning and school in general. He sought to receive praise in his hard work. Don’t get me wrong, we still had struggles and I worked hard to motivate him the rest of the time! But deep down he truly did try to find that encouragement to keep going. He was easier to understand, and I truly found happiness in his drawings, especially when he would create something specifically for me! 

Ideally what I took away from this was that a little more effort in praise can go a long way if we take the time. 

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