Which is Better: Praise or Encouragement?
What exactly do you say when you’re giving a child positive reinforcement? This question evokes remarkably strong reactions from teachers. Many in the field (Fields and Boesser, 1998; Kohn, 2001; Reynolds, 1990) believe that praise, the traditional positive reinforcer, is “coercive”—that it motivates children to do things for extrinsic reasons (to please others) and not for intrinsic reasons (to please themselves or because the task is inherently worth doing). By praising a child, a teacher is passing judgment on his performance and teaching him to rely on the views of others instead of evaluating his own effort and satisfaction. Praise also hurts relationships, tells children what to feel, and has a dampening effect on their autonomy, creativity, self-control, self-esteem, and pleasure. Critics reserve special scorn for evaluative praise, which expresses the teacher’s approval, compares children to one another, or is very general. Most teachers agree that phrases such as “Good girl” and “What a beautiful painting” are meaningless.
On the other hand, positive reinforcement in the form of encouragement “is more important than any other aspect of child raising” (Dreikurs, 1964, p. 36), according to its supporters. It is not judgmental, but places the emphasis on behavior and process rather than person and product. By recognizing effort and improvement rather than achievement (Reynolds, 1990; Rodd, 1996), encouragement expresses trust and confidence in the child (Coloroso, 1995) and nourishes autonomy and self-esteem. Like Thomas Gordon’s active listening technique (2000), encouragement reflects back to children what they’re doing and feeling and “reinforces their sense of themselves so that they feel validated as potent, competent, and worthwhile human beings,” says Kathleen Grey (1995), a child development specialist at the University of California at Davis. Alfie Kohn (2001) puts it this way: “Whatever we decide to say has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done”.
Accentuate The Positive
To make your positive comments more meaningful for the child, try the following:
- Focus on specific attributes of the child’s work rather than on generalities. (“Your collage has a lot of sparkles,” “The ending of your story surprised me.”)
- Emphasize the process, not the product, and let the child know that mistakes are part of learning. (“You worked on that dinosaur for a long time. Can you show me how you finally made it stand up?”)
- Point out how a child’s action affects his peers. (“Look at Caitlin’s smile! You really made her happy when you let her be a firefighter!”)
- Be sincere and direct.
- Deliver your encouragement privately.
- Use your natural voice, but be aware that some children may need quieter or more intense encouragement.
- Avoid comparisons between children.
- Help children appreciate their own behavior and achievements. (“You must feel proud of the way you shared the markers with Lan Ying,” rather than “I like the way you. . . .”) (Kohn, 2001; Mulligan, Morris, Miller-Green, and Harper-Whalen, 1998; Slaby et al., 1995).
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