Reflecting on “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen” Chapter 4: Tools for Praise and Appreciation- How To Use Praise Effectively
Chapter 4: Tools for Praise and Appreciation- How To Use Praise Effectively
Do you know how to use praise effectively? What is so wrong with “good boy” or “Great job”? Does even the way we speak positivity need to be challenged?! According to the research, it does.
I have to say I really struggle with this chapter, even though it’s not the first time I’ve heard it said. But it’s so ingrained in me and I know even I want to hear “Great job!”, so why wouldn’t my child want to hear the same? How could that possibly be damaging?
But I get it, sort of lol.
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The Tools for Effective Praise and Appreciation
Tool 1: Describe What You See
Tool 2: Describe the Effect on Others
Tool 3: Describe Effort
Tool 4: Describe Progress
Important Tips To Remember When Giving Praise
How I Use The Tools At Home
How I Use The Tools At School
Tools For Praise and Appreciation Infographic
At least the author understands that we’re going to have a problem with this idea, she addresses it right away. She also gives real-life adult situations so we can relate to the way we praise our kids must feel. The very first one hit home right out of the park.
The scenario? A teacher who’s had a really rough day with the students, but the admin walks in during the first time of the day the students are cooperating. The admin then says “You are the best instructor here. You have excellent control of your class.”…. Yup, that has actually happened a few times. I keep hearing “You’re so calm. You have great control over your class.” But I don’t feel calm most the time and I often feel a little out of control… at least during clean-up time.
Another one I could relate to was the scenario where you work really hard on something. Like blood, sweat, and tears hard, and you send it off to your supervisor or instructor only to hear a “Great job. Thanks.” And you’re left wondering if they even looked at it or just filed it away as done on time.
For the person giving the praise, they think they’re being nice or helpful, that we’re developing confidence. But maybe we’re making others focus a more on their weaknesses instead of their strengths. Maybe we need to be more mindful of how we’re giving praise and encouragement.
- As I previously mentioned, it can make us focus on our faults. We think about the times in the past we weren’t the best. For example, they may not have just heard me yell, yet they say I’m so calm…
- We can doubt the sincerity of the person offering praise. We wonder if they really mean it, if they’re just being nice, or worse, if they want something from us.
- If can feel dismissive. Especially in the “Great job” comment, we feel like they didn’t really look at what they’re praising, they’re just giving us generic comments to acknowledge it.
- It can even feel threatening. Like, that was the best that can be done and what if it was just a fluke? It can make some people want to give up.
- It can be canceled out. A “Good job.” can be negated by a “Bad job” 20 minutes from now. “You’re so smart.” today can be erased by a “That was stupid.” tomorrow.
I think this is harder to remember as our children get older because when they are so little they seem to thrive on the praise of every little thing. So we just continue and forget to adjust to age-appropriate reactions. Like cooing at a 5-year-old would have them yelling “I’m not a baby!”.
As a teacher, I also have to remember this, and so does administration. It’s not that praise is bad, but that when someone is concentrating or in the middle of something, the last thing they need is someone hovering over them and essentially analyzing everything they’re doing. Sometimes the best praise is just to let them keep working. Let them have their unbroken concentration and learn how to focus. As adults, we’re constantly bemoaning that kids today don’t know how to focus, but then when they are focusing we constantly interrupt them to say anything from “Good job” to asking them questions about what they’re doing to evaluate their knowledge.
I kind love the analogy that the authors used. They said to think of it like you’re cooking dinner and your spouse comes in and basically praises every little thing you do. From the onions being perfectly diced to your choice of cooking oil and your grip on the can opener. I think we would all scream at them to get out of the kitchen. We wouldn’t feel encouraged, we’d feel overwhelmed and like the praise was disingenuous.
Tool 1: Describe What You See
With this tool, she takes all the old standard praises like “Good job”, “Nice try”, “That a beautiful picture” and gives you alternatives that are all about describing. Note that this tool will actually require you to pay attention to the child instead of superficially acknowledging they did something.
You don’t have to stop at sight though, you can use all your five senses, though of course sight will probably be the most used.
Some examples of praising or showing appreciation using descriptions include:
- “You mixed blue and yellow and made green!”
- “You put away all your books and all your toys. I see the floor. That was a big job.”
- “You wrote your name.”
- or even… “You did it!”
This tool is essentially a continuation on Tool 1, but instead of just describing what they did, you include how it affected others. This is a great tool to encourage empathy and help develop awareness of how our actions have consequences, without the temptation to judge their character. Basically, stay away from the “Good girl” and “Sweet boy” comments when praising an action and be specific. This then gives them a frame of reference so they can repeat the action.
Examples of describing the effect on others for praise:
- “You folded all those shirts. That was a big help to me.”
- “The baby loves it when you read to her. She is so focused on you and has a big smile on her face.”
- “I heard you shared your lunch when your friend didn’t have any. That allowed him to focus on his school work instead of his hunger.”
- “The doggy is showing his stomach. He likes it when you scratch his belly.”
I was fascinated by the study that she begins this section with. The researcher took two groups of students and gave them each a math test. With one group they gave the standard praise of “You’re so smart!” and “You’re really good at this!”. With the second group, they praised them again but instead focused on the effort. Such as “That’s a good score. You must have worked really hard.
After, the two groups were asked if they’d like to try a more challenging set of questions. Group 1 didn’t want to, but group two did! Then they gave them those questions and group one actually did worse on that test.
It turns out that when you praise someone’s intelligence and they think it’s all just talent and no effort, they’re afraid of failing. But when you praise their effort, they want to actually try harder.
This study was eye-opening to me in my own life. I did grow up being praised for my intelligence. And I’ve spent most my adult life being afraid that I’m not intelligent enough or that I’m going to fail and be found a fraud… Maybe this has something to do with it, maybe it doesn’t. But if I can still give someone the same warm fuzzies and build confidence with this method instead, then why take the risk of creating the same issues for other kids?
Examples of Describing Effort instead of talent when praising others:
- “You kept trying until you figured out how to put that toy back together again!”
- “I saw you try again and again to climb that rock wall until you succeeded!”
- “You kept practicing those notes until you could play the whole song!”
This is the tool you need to use when you are more prone to criticize. I think we all see what needs to be done or changed easier than we see what has already been done right? I mean I’m going to see that during clean up time in my art room that there is still trash on the floor and there are scissors on the window sill before I’ll see that they put all the markers away properly. Our brains have been trained to see what needs to be done. So this will be a challenge for many of us.
When possible, avoid correcting. If your child is struggling with a task, then criticism will be discouraging and create thoughts of “Why bother?” and “I can’t do anything right.” Instead, we describe what they have done right. Often this is enough. It shows them that they are capable and it shows them what went well so they can repeat it.
Of course, sometimes we do need to point things out that need to be improved upon because kids don’t always notice… heck neither do we lol. But if this is the case, then be sure to comment first on the positives of what they’ve done. In fact, try to give criticism with a positive stance. More like a ‘still to-do’ versus ‘this is wrong’.
Examples of using describing progress to show appreciation even when tasks aren’t perfect:
- “You sounded out the word ‘balloon’ correctly. Keep trying to sound out the other words the same way and soon you’ll be able to read the whole page!”
- “You’re helping your friend understand my directions, that’s very helpful to him. The class is a little distracted though, can you please wait till I’m done to explain more.”
- “You brushed the right side of your mouth very thoroughly! Now let’s do the left.”
“Consider asking questions or starting a conversation instead of praising.”
I have to say this is super difficult for me to remember. It will definitely take more brain power and require more focus from you. This is a good thing for your relationship with your kids but takes time to get used to.
This is probably more easily seen when it comes to your child’s creations, but it doesn’t need to stop there. Some examples would be instead of saying “Nice job.” or even “You drew a dog”, you would instead ask questions or be conversational. This opens your child up to really tell you what’s going through their head. So you could say, “You made a new drawing! Why did you choose to draw a dog?” or “You worked hard on this drawing, the dog reminds me of Duke (our dog)”. To be extra safe, and with young children sometimes this is the best just in case it’s not actually a dog, you could go with “Tell me about your drawing.”
Be aware, when kids are really invested in their work; whether drawing, sculpting, or setting up elaborate scenes with their toys, they can talk your ears off about it. So go in assuming it’ll be a decently long conversation and invest your full attention. I know it’s hard, but it will help make your child feel worthy.
“Sometimes acknowledging feelings can be more helpful than praise.”
This is a good tip for when your child is feeling frustrated or upset. Usually they’re being self-deprecating and of course, we don’t want them saying things like “I can’t” or “I’m the worst at…”. Unfortunately, our encouraging words of praise that they can, they’re really good at … and so on actually makes them protest even more that they really can’t. Heck, even adults I know do this.
So when your child doesn’t feel like they are worthy of praise, empathize instead. Go back to chapter 1 and remember to acknowledge feelings.
And if the mood is right, don’t forget that you can give in fantasy what they want. “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”
“Give a child a new picture of himself.”
Being honest… this one I struggle with. Especially the idea of not saying you’re proud of your child. The idea is that when you say “I’m proud of you”, you’re taking credit for what your child accomplishes. But I am proud. And I know as a child I wanted that… but then again that seeking approval causes problems too. So I guess I’ll keep working on wrapping my head around this one and play it by ear.
The premise of this reminder is that as we acknowledge feelings we can help our child see themselves as the amazing people they really are without being “over-the-top” or denying what they are feeling right now. One way is to tell them their story, remind them that everyone learns at different times and in different ways. Point out what they can do and how they have been putting in the effort and that he will learn. Reminisce about a time in the past where they did learn to do something despite difficulties or showed a personality trait that will help them in this situation.
You can also create a picture and a feeling of being capable by giving your child opportunities to be. Find ways to “need help”. Kids love being helpful, they thrive on it as being helpful makes them feel confident, grown up, capable, and kind. All thoughts and actions we want our children to show and feel as they grow up.
“Resist the urge to praise by comparison.”
Ooh yeah, this is a dangerous precedent to create. Statements like “You can draw portraits so realistically, most other 4th graders can do that.” or “You pottied on the toilet, your baby brother can’t do that yet.” all seem so innocent and may be statements of fact, but they cause problems. The problem is that when we feel pride in our successes at the expense of others’ failures or inabilities we learn to look for other’s failures and inabilities to bolster our own self-worth. We then also become threatened by others’ successes and talents.
Instead, just continue to describe, positively, his actions, efforts, progress, and effect on others. You could even change “…your baby brother can’t do that.” to “You’ll be able to teach your baby brother when he’s ready!”. Change “No one else in 4th grade can draw like you.” to “You can teach others who want to learn to draw like you.” Then you’re setting them up to feel capable and intelligent as well as helpful, instead of a rival.
Describe What You See
As I feel like this is the basis of all the tools, I’ve really tried to be more mindful of describing what actions I see my son taking instead of just “good job”. So when he puts his books away I try and say “You’re putting away all your books to keep them safe!”. Or when he eats with his utensils instead of his fingers, “I see you are using your spoon to eat all by yourself!”. I really think my tone and inflections help me feel this as praise verses random statements.
Describe the Effect on Others
I’m trying to add this one in more. In common situations like when he hits someone or the dogs I try and first empathize if it’s because he’s upset or excited, then I describe the effect it had on others, ask him to make amends like in chapter 3, and finally I describe that I see used a gentle touch and again describe the effect on the person or dog he touched. I do need to work on expanding my vocabulary in this area though lol.
We’ve been using this one a lot during our bedtime routine when he wants to help put his powder and oil away. The shelf is just above his head and he struggled for a bit to get it up there. He would try and then often ask for help. As I helped him I would say “You stretched so high to help mommy put the oil away.” After about a week of this, he figured out how to hold the containers and get it up on the shelf all by himself!
I’m trying to get my son to help pick up his own toys at transitions through the day. I don’t expect a 22-month-old to be able to focus on it and do it on his own. I’m just trying to set up routines and lead by example. So I start by describing what I see him helping to clean up and then follow up with something like “You picked up all your books! Can you hand mommy the duck now?” The added bonus is that it helps build vocabulary!
Teaching art really lends itself to this chapter, but it’s still hard to accomplish. When I need to look at almost 30 students’ work and let them know if they’re doing something right, it is hard to take the time. Especially when they all seem to come at you at once asking “Is this ok?!” But I’m trying to be more mindful and intentional.
Describe What You See
You’d think this would be perfect for such a visual class, and it is, but sometimes I’m not sure what to point out that’s praiseworthy. This week we did pinch pots and clay pots, and so I tried to say “I see your coils are all even and you scored and slipped each one together.” instead of “That’s right” or “good job”.
When they’re working on their personal projects I try to talk about the elements and principles of art or point out what I see they’re working on. But sometimes it feels so basic and obvious.
Describe the Effect on Others
This tool is one I’ve definitely used in regards to negative actions, but I admit I have trouble remembering to use it in a positive way. When I do use it, it’s usually in relation to helping clean up or giving pencils. I definitely need to focus on this one more.
When a student who’s behind in their fine motor skills brings me their work, I usually start here. I don’t always know what they’re trying to create so it’s the safest, plus it gives them a positive first. So I might say “You worked really hard on coloring within your lines.” Or I would tell a student “I see you are experimenting with different methods to attach those pieces to find the best one. Which one do you think will work best?”
This is another tool I like to use with my students who are struggling as it shows them how far they’ve come. So many older kids and adults come to me with the whole “I can’t do art.” mentality, so it really helps to show them when they’ve made progress. So I might say “You worked really hard on that hand drawing. Soon you’ll be able to draw the whole body.”
One area that I need to focus on using this tool more is in the cleanup. Cleanup time is the WORST time of class for me. No one wants to stop their projects (despite a timer and warnings) and so they wait till the last possible minute when they need to go and I have another class coming. Meanwhile, I have other students still asking questions and needing help. When all is said and done all I can see is what still needs to be done which isn’t very encouraging to anyone, I know.
Will you change how you give praise?
So what are your thoughts on all of this? Are you game for giving it a go? I don’t think there is anything to lose in trying, but remember that the way we speak is deeply ingrained in us. It’s basically the muscle memory of language. So take it slow and expect setbacks. It will take time to change what used to be so automatic.
Do you already do this? I’d love to hear from you below how you’re doing with it!