Do you often find yourself giving children feedback and hearing yourself use the same phrases many times a day? Do you often think your praise and acknowledgement sounds rehearsed, and non authentic? How does this make children feel about their work? Can you ever master the art of giving authentic and specific praise?

Picture this…You have been working hard on a specific project at work. Let’s say for some time now, you have been wanting to make the entrance way to your learning service a place that makes people feel welcome, and represents the many people that spend their days there. 

You have quietly gone about researching ideas on Pinterest, your mind filled with images of the most beautiful entranceway’s. You have carefully considered how first impressions count, and you want this space to reflect the respect you have for children and their families. You have considered the many differences your families and children bring to your learning service, making it such a diverse place…you get the picture, you have thoroughly thought out this space.

Now you move onto collecting and creating the resources needed to represent the children, families and parents in this one small space. You painstakingly research the correct greeting for every ethnicity that makes up your group. You find artefacts to display, that represent the work the children do in this special place. You carefully select photos of all of the teachers, creating a frame to adorn the wall. You carefully make the sign in area look tidy, no scraps of paper floating around here! Basically, you pour your heart and soul into creating a beautiful welcoming space for anybody that steps through your door.

You spend a weekend, tirelessly beautifying this space. You feel really good about it and can’t wait for the reactions of your colleagues, children and families on Monday morning.

Now imagine this, the first person that steps through the door looks around and says “this looks nice, good job”. The second person looks around and says “good work”. The third person has a bit more enthusiasm in their voice, they give you a big smile, a pat on the back and say “wow, fantastic!” 

So by now you are thinking to yourself “OK, everybody likes it, I achieved my purpose”, but then, in walks a second group of people. 

The first person puts their keys and bag down and slowly looks around. They walk over to the wall where you have created a display that says “welcome” in 23 different languages. They turn to you and say “I can see that you have considered the languages of everybody that spends their day here. That is a great way to make everybody feel that you have thought of them and value their culture/language”. 

The second person turns to you and says “It must have taken you a long time to clean up the clutter and mess that was stored in this entranceway, I really appreciate walking into a tidy entrance way when I have 2 children and all of their belongings to get through the door”. 

The third person turns to you and says “Having the teachers photos and names up in a frame is a great idea, it was hard to remember everybody’s names when we started here, and I am sure it will help any new families remember who everybody is”.

Comparing the two groups of praise can you notice anything? The first group give generic praise, it is lacking specific acknowledgement of the work that has gone into creating this amazing space.

The second group give authentic and specific praise. They validate the hard work you put in, and also acknowledge your reasons for making these changes. They make their recognition of your work truly meaningful. They make you feel really good about the effort you have put into achieving your objective.

Now think about the messages we give children when we are giving them feedback about their work. Do we often give empty feedback? “Good job”, “I like your painting”, or “Good boy/girl” are phrases we have likely all been guilty of using at some time or another.

Often it is easy to give children non authentic praise when we are rushed off our feet, or distracted. But with a bit of practice, we can easily give authentic and specific praise. It can be hard to begin with, but here are some ideas to get you started as an alternative to “good job”

  • That took you a really long time to finish that. You worked really hard!
  • You didn’t give up, even when it was really tricky. You must feel good about that.
  • I can see that you have been practising painting circles, you have made so many.
  • Your room is so tidy, now we can see the floor again.
  • You jumped so high that time!
  • You managed to balance 8 blocks on top of each other this time and they didn’t fall down.
  • You have been practising hopping on one foot, now you can do it so easily.
  • That must make you feel really good that you achieved that without any help.
  • Wow, you are swinging so high.
  • You did it all by yourself, you worked so hard.
  • I can see that you used every different colour from the pencil jar in your drawing. It is so colourful.
  • It must feel good that you have worked so hard to make this.
  • I’m proud of how you worked out that problem all by yourself.
  • You have worked so hard on this block construction, would you like to tell me about it?

Giving children specific and authentic praise supports them to develop a growth mindset. That is, the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be enhanced by hard work and effort.

Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life. Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their persistence or strategies (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.

Children praised for their effort became more eager to tackle challenges, and more resilient in the wake of failure.

So next time you feel yourself about to say “good job” to a child, stop and think of a way that you can turn your feedback into something more specific, focusing on the process the child worked through. It is hard to begin with, but you will soon find it becomes second nature.

Posted by Sonya McIntyre

Sonya was born in Lower Hutt and went to Rata Street Kindergarten and Petone Kindergarten. A qualified ECE, she studied at Victoria University in Wellington and has worked with home-based educators, in community-based childcare and in kindergarten. With childhood memories of reading books and writing stories, combined with her passion for all things social media, Sonya segued into her role with us at Storypark as social media manager.


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3 Comments

  1. Brilliant article. Spot on. I am leading an online workshop on this coming Thursday. It’s on praise and it’s with a centre where I sometimes work, and one of the teachers found your post and wondered if it might be useful. I read it, and thought ‘Yay! half my work is already done. Brilliant article. i particularly love any work about children when the author invites us to imagine a similar scenario in an adult context. I particularly like the sibling rivalry equivalent. Imagining your husband saying “DArling, i love you so much, i have decided to marry another one, just like you! Now you will be nice to her, won’t you? let her use your laptop, and she will sleep in my bed, and you can have your own nice little bed in the spare room, and you will share your clothes and your car, and i probably won’t have so much time to spend with you, because she will be new and nervous and need a lot of my attention…. What? what are planning to do with that revolver/poison/dagger/sledgehammer? and why are you angry with me? what have i done!” So i loved your long drawn out explanation of all the work you had done in the foyer… so we could really live into how it might feel. Thank you!! love it. i guess you are familiar with Alfie Kohn’s work? cheers, Evelyn from Storytelling threads on facebook.

    Reply

    1. Thankyou so much Evelyn, I wrote this article 4 years ago now and had completely forgotten about it, I am so pleased your team (and workshop attendees) may have found it useful and may inspire them to stop and think about the effort rather than the outcome 🙂 I hope your workshop went really well too!

      Reply

  2. Such a lovely story. Good job Swathi 🙂

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