The Subtle Art of Praise

I was recently asked a question at a teacher training workshop, by a well-meaning teacher, if motivating students was part of her job profile. I appreciate and empathise with what this teacher, and many like her go through on an average day. I also understand that the question was not due to apathy towards her students but a result of her daily struggle trying to grapple with her multifarious roles.

Among other things, we talked about providing students with verbal feedback and constructive reinforcement about their learning including the do’s and don’ts of using praise as a motivating tool. I remembered once reading “Talking to Tweens” by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, “Praising well is a subtle art. How you praise can make a huge difference in whether a child feels freed and encouraged by your comments or, despite your good intentions, becomes anxious or even angry”.

Sincerity and appropriate phrasing elevates praise into a fine art. Here is a list of some of the do’s and don’ts that can help you master this art, both as teachers and parents:


* Waiting for them to cross the finish line. Praise every step of the process and not just the final product

* Gushing. Match the fervour and applause to achievement or else it will sound fake.

* Generalising. Some children thrive on outright praise, while others tend to be easily embarrassed.

* Being vague. The context of the praise must be specific. For instance, “Good job!” is ambiguous and ineffective; instead, “That was a well analysed paper” works wonders in motivating the learner.

* Using “good” and “bad”. They mean nothing to a child except imply approval and disapproval. They do nothing to help the child identify what is it that he/she needs to do in future.

* To begin sentences with `don`t` as it tells a child what not to do but does not tell what is it that he or she should be doing.


* Use age appropriate vocabulary. Words that work for a kindergartener are meaningless for a tween.

* Use non-verbal praise. A high-five, a sticker or simply a warm tone of voice sometimes conveys more that words.

* Accept praise for your work, as adults, without brushing it aside or being boastful.

At the end of it all, praise is about a conscious choice of words and context, an expression of affirmation and acknowledgement. It must sound so!

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