How to use praise to encourage and empower your children

Praise is a powerful tool that can shape how a child thinks about themselves and ultimately impacts on their behaviour, motivation and self-actualisation. When used mindfully, praise can help create an affirmative, enabling learning environment and the development of a growth mindset.

An education expert says it is important to understand the dynamics of effective praise, to ensure it has the intended impact.

“As a parent/guardian or teacher, understanding the nuances of praise and the significant impact it has on a child’s development and psyche is paramount. While praise is essential, it is equally important to encourage effort, resilience and the development of a love of learning in the child. Combining this with a supportive environment means empowering the child and enabling them to thrive and be successful,” says Lynda Eagle, academic adviser at ADvTECH Schools.

She adds that effective praise should be specific, celebrate effort, and emphasise practise. “Praise should focus on the actions, rather than the innate characteristics of a child.”

Be specific and descriptive

Being specific helps children understand what they did well, and how they can build on or extend their skills, understandings and knowledge. 

“Instead of using a generic praise such as ‘good job’, it would be more impactful acknowledging the work that has been done and the effort applied – ‘I noticed how carefully you arranged those blocks when creating your pattern. Would you like to explain to me your thinking?’,” advises Eagle.

When praising a child, it is important that the adult is fully present and shows genuine interest. This fosters connections and helps build reciprocal relationships. It is an opportunity to engage with the child to share in their experiences to gain a deeper understanding of the child’s thinking.

Celebrate effort and progress

Where a child is working toward a goal, then it is important to provide support and encouragement over time. Adults can offer praise and acknowledgement of the work that has been put into achieving the result. This highlights the fact that the effort and process in achieving the goal is as, if not more, important than the outcome.

Acknowledging that learning through our mistakes is a valid part of the learning process removes performance paralysis and inculcates a growth mindset. 

“Mistakes and setbacks are seen as important learning opportunities. Praise children when they manage disappointments well, and encourage them to keep trying and move forward.”

Eagle says body language is also important. “Using an enthusiastic tone, adopting a relaxed posture, while smiling and acknowledging the child, drives the message of support home and gives children the psychological boosts they need to continue doing their best. Take care to be sincere, however, as children can sense inauthenticity and fake praise.”

Balance and reflective practice

It is important to remember that excess praise, or praise that is not sincere, may undermine the child’s intrinsic motivation and the development of a strong internal sense of accomplishment. 

Further, as noted by well-known American psychologist and author Carol Dweck, this may lead to the “development of a false perception regarding their true abilities and skills”. By offering praise when warranted, and providing constructive and mindful feedback when necessary, the child builds trust in the process and the support provided as they navigate their way through the various learning experiences.

Eagle says encouraging and engaging in reflective processes aids children with the recognition of what went well, what they may do differently and the next steps. This helps foster the development of self-motivation and self-assessment, and ultimately the transferring of knowledge, skills and understandings, to new and unfamiliar settings – now and in their future.

Mindful and specific praise builds trust and will have a profound impact on a child’s development.

“By mastering the art of praise, parents and teachers can inspire confidence, resilience, a growth mindset and, most importantly, a love of learning in their children,” concludes Eagle.

Image credit: Drazen Zigic/Freepik

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