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How to give your child the right kind of praise

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We all love praise but some types are more effective than others. Jackie Cosh explains why.

When I was a child praise didn’t come readily. A quick ‘well done’, maybe, but this was an age before sticker charts and well before children were given plasma televisions to aim for as prizes for doing well!

While I am sure we are all grateful that teachers and parents now generally understand that constant criticism never did a child any good, it seems we have now hit the other extreme, with iPods, games consoles and even foreign flights are some of the incentives offered to children by some schools and parents as a reward for good attendance.

It seems that just when we all felt that we were doing it right; experts are now saying that again we have it all wrong. Praise is not the way to encourage a child they tell us. Forget incentives and prizes, and get rid of the star charts.

Reward schemes and praise: do they work?

In 2008 Harrogate Grammar School in North Yorkshire carried out a study into school reward schemes. They found that while rewards, stickers and treats change behaviour and work in the short term, once the rewards ended, the children reverted back. Those who didn’t achieve the reward lost motivation altogether.

Even with verbal praise, it seems it needs to be the right kind. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential, talks about a study of two groups of children given problem solving tasks. On completion one group were told they must be very clever, the other group that they had worked very hard. The kids who had been told they had worked hard were happy to try another puzzle, the other group weren’t. There was too much to lose if they didn’t do so well.

So it is how we praise and reward that is important. If it is overdone children can become ‘star chart junkies’, in constant search of another incentive. It dilutes the desire to do well because learning is fun, or because the rules state they must. It can encourage children to only take part in things they are naturally good at as they become scared of failure, and think that if you can’t do something perfectly you shouldn’t do it at all. This undermines the importance of working at things and trying. So we need to ensure we don’t overdo it, that we make the praise relevant, and try to encourage self motivation.

Praise phrases that work

  1. “Well done. You must be proud of yourself.” This encourages the child to take control of their own pride in themself and become self-motivated.
  2. “Good work”. Praise the behaviour, not the child, to avoid the child thinking of themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  3. “I love the colours you used in the pictures”. Be specific, instead of just saying “nice picture”. It shows that you really mean it and will help increase confidence in the child’s skills.
  4. “Fantastic. You worked really hard.” Avoid encouraging a fixed mindset where children think they are naturally good at something and don’t need to try. Acknowledge the importance of trying hard.
  5. Wink, nod or smile. Praise doesn’t always have to be verbal. 
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