Praise them ‘til they know they’re praised.

Hello everyone!

Phew! It has been a crazy-busy week. I've spent two days at BETT (the British Education Training and Technology show); I've met the deputy news editor for Newsround; I've been interviewed for the Times Educational Supplement (very low-key, don't get excited)... and the podcast (latest episode out now)... AND I need to film and edit a video.

I'm shattered!

But enough about me, this week's post is all about the benefits and dangers of praising children. Yeah, you read that right, dangers of praising children. I was shocked as well...

Many, many years ago, when I was a young(er) and inexperienced teacher, I came home and announced to my wife that I had had to tell a child off for being very naughty indeed. I think they had punched someone or destroyed a book or something similar. Anyway, I was telling my wife all about how I had read this child the riot act. They had received such a dressing-down; they were sure to never even think about misbehaving like that again. Wasn’t I a strong example of behavioural discipline, I beamed.

My wife was not beaming back. Rather than tell me how strong and authoritative I had been, she asked me if I thought the child had learned the lesson I was intending to teach.

I should think so, I responded, with the hubris afforded to only the highest level of Dunning Kruger graduates, with the telling-off I gave them, they knew they were in trouble. Don’t you worry about that. Why, I told them off until they knew they had been told off. You may now bring on the trumpets and herald my triumphant success as a disciplinarian.

My goodness, responded my wife, did anything else happen today?

Why yes, I said. I told her how a different child had done some very good work and even showed me evidence of independent research.

Very impressed with this, my wife asked what I had said to the child. I told her that I had congratulated the child. 

Now, my wife is not a teacher and never has been, so she avoids telling me how to do my job. Having said this, she is a very clever woman and deeply empathetic. She sat there for a while in silence and then asked me the following career-changing question (spoiler alert, it’s the title of the blog):

Did you praise her until she knew she had been praised?

And I had to pause and think. I had told the child that I was very impressed. I had given her a gently reassuring squeeze on the shoulder and that was it. Maybe that was enough but, was it? I had made damn sure that ‘naughty’ kid had known they were in trouble. Had I done the same with the ‘good’ kid? Honestly? I don’t think I did.

I am not here to point fingers but I would urge you to think back to the last time you told a child off in your class and compare it to the last time you praised a child. Were the levels of intensity comparable? 

In the book Positive Discipline in the Classroom[1], Jane Nelsen recounts a study conducted by a former NFL referee (they were also an educator and held a PhD). This referee asked school principals if they cared about their staff. The principals all said that they did. They were then asked if their staff thought they were cared about. The principals all said that they were confident their staff knew they cared about them.

When asked, the staff reported ‘extremely low levels’ of care from the principals.

Then he asked the teachers the same question about their students. Every teacher said they cared deeply about their pupils. Guess what happened when he asked the children? Nelsen and her co-authors go on to define caring as:

“[Helping children] understand the consequences of their choices in a nonthreatening environment”

Often these are the negative consequences of ‘bad’ behaviour. Less often, I would argue, are they the positive consequences of ‘good’ behaviour.

And so we’re back to my wife’s initial question and the inspiration for this post:

Do you praise them until they know they’re praised?

And it’s not just former American Football referees that are saying this. The psychologist and behaviourist, B.F. Skinner (a big fan of putting animals in boxes and making them pull levers or press buttons) firmly believed that future behaviour was directly influenced by external stimuli. Or, more simply, praising good behaviour would result in future good behaviour[2].

However, the praise needs to be specific to be properly effective[3]. It is not enough to give a general pat on the back and a ‘well done’; you need to associate the specific behaviour with the (immediate if possible) reward: ‘that’s great sitting, well done’; ‘I love the effort you’re making, keep it up’; ‘it’s so impressive that you didn’t give up until you got the answer - you go Glen Coco!’ (yes, I use Mean Girls references in class and yes, for a whole year, on Wednesdays, my TAs and I would wear pink). 

Research into this sort of immediate specific reward found that not only did desirable behaviour increase, but undesirable behaviour actually decreased within the class [4]. Due to this, praising children so that they know they have been praised has been linked to supporting children with emotional behaviour disorders and helping them to succeed not just academically but also socially and emotionally[5]

There are arguments out there that discourage punishments as well as rewards.  Jane Nelsen et al. argue that these kinds of ‘external controls’ relieves children of any responsibility for their own behaviour as it creates a system where it is up to the teacher (or other adults in the room) to catch them being ‘good’ or ‘bad’[6]. They go on to say that, despite having agreeable short-term effects, the long term results of rewards and punishments include ‘rebellion, lessons in negative use o power, and thoughtless compliance’! I’ll be honest, while I have often considered the value of repeatedly telling the same child off, I have never considered my praising to lead to a mindless people-pleaser… but I guess it makes sense? 

But that really takes us back to the specificity of the praise. John Hattie and Helen Timperley suggested that vague or lip-service praise is useless for a child because they won’t know what behaviour should be repeated[7]. They also argue that neutral feedback (the generic ‘well done’) is no good because, after a failure, the child tended to think it meant they had low ability, and after success, they equated it to low effort. Flacid praise is lose/lose.

And it gets worse! Non-specific, lack-lustre praise can actually hamper success as studies have suggested that it encourages children to distance their behaviour from their results[8]. Basically, this is how we can create children who believe that either failure of a task is inevitable because they themselves are failures, or that success is purely down to the task being an easy one and nothing to do with their efforts or their hard work.

But here’s an interesting thing…

I found a paper from 2016 that discouraged praising children too much. And here’s an even more interesting thing: I agree.

The first thing to bear in mind, and I’ll admit that I hadn’t consciously considered this (I probably hadn’t even unconsciously considered it, if I’m honest), is that praise, verbal or written, is an evaluation of a child’s achievement based on a person’ subjective standards[9]. Put like that, it’s obvious. When I walk home from teaching, nothing is said but when a baby takes three wobbly steps across the living room, everybody applauds. This makes sense, but how often do we account for the internal standards of the child?

Eddie Bummelman and his colleagues have suggested that children with low self-esteem can react negatively to over-enthusiastic praise. Well, more accurately, it’s a problem with the type of praise that is given to these children, and issues around fixed and growth mindsets[10]

(If I have just lost a couple of you, I understand. Let me reassure you, I’m not a growth mindset zealot, you can come back. This isn’t a Power of …YET! Moment, this is science. Well, psychology anyway. There will be no mention of Austin’s Butterfly
[11], merely the understanding that, sometimes, children can feel like the learning process is one they are either good or bad at, and that they should understand that everyone can learn and improve. I promise.)

The problem, argues Brummelman and co., is that, when faced with a child with low self-esteem, it is common to offer praise that is based solely on the personal achievement instead of specific (realistic?) praise based on the process[12]. They found that children who were given personal praise tended to avoid challenging tasks. They were also more likely to give up more quickly; put in less effort; and end up feeling worse overall.

Conversely, when children were given praise based on specific processing skills, they looked for more challenges, lasted longer, put in more effort and developed feelings of self-worth.

On top of this, the trend in adults was to inflate the praise they were giving to children with low self-esteem. Now, remember when I said my wife wasn’t a teacher? She’s also not a psychologist (she’s a 'hard' scientist - quantitative, not qualitative). Interestingly, during our conversation about praising children until they know they’ve been praised, she alluded to this aspect of inflated congratulations. Kind of.

I had written a song and asked her to listen to it. She said that she thought I could do better. Now, I can be a little… erm… delicate. When I ask for feedback, I’m usually asking for someone to tell me how good they think I’ve done. Maybe it’s because I’m the baby of the family; maybe it’s because I’m an Aries; I don’t know. Suffice it to say that this blunt critique of my (admittedly not-very-good) ditty was not met with the measured response she was expecting.

Have I ever mentioned that I’ve been accused of being a drama queen?

Well, my wife being the amazing human being that she is, she gave me a hug (because I am one who needs hugs) and said:

“If I thought that was the best you could do, I would have said it was wonderful. But I know you are capable of better.”

And that is the danger with inflated praise. It assumes that the recipient can do no better. Essentially, you’re saying to a child, ‘that’s really good… for you.’ Urgh! How horrible is that? And the research tells us exactly what you’ve probably already guessed. Children who received inflated praise tended towards lesser challenges, had less resilience and ended up feeling bad about themselves.

There’s also the problem of self-validation goals. 

I’ll be quick with this one. This is what I like to call the ‘Stickers for Being Polite’ problem. I once worked in a school where the children were told that all the teachers were on the lookout for polite behaviour. Any children caught being polite (holding open doors, picking up coats, cleaning away litter, etc.) would be given a sticker (stickers are catnip for children). 

It was great. Within a few days, doors were held open and the hallways were clean and tidy. Many stickers were given out.

Then things began to turn. Children were seen to be closing doors just so they could open them. Some children were even found to be throwing coats and bags on the floor and then waiting for an adult to walk around the corner to catch them picking them back up! The stickers had become the goal. The measure had become the target. The original purpose of the thing had been lost.

The same thing can happen when the result of praise is that children feel obliged to become praiseworthy people[13]. This reductive feedback loop brings us back to Jane Nelsen’s concerns over people-pleasing.

But where does that leave us? 

For me, the answer is moderation. In a class of 30 children, I know the ones who will react well to lots of enthusiastic praise and I know the ones who need the same praise but do not want it so publicly or vigorously. Children are individual and the praise you give them should be individualised. In England, schools are very keen on differentiated work and individual education plans, I’m sure that’s true in other countries as well. So why not differentiate their praise as well?

To borrow the words of yet another educator/psychologist:

“There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines—rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine”[14] 

Take care of yourself; take care of your friends; and remember, you can do this... you're awesome.

Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this post

[1]&[6] Nelsen J.(Ed), Lott L., & Glenn, S. H. (2011). Positive Discipline in the Classroom, Revised 3rd Edition: Developing Mutual Respect, Cooperation, and Responsibility in Your Classroom. Harmony.

[2] Skinner, B. F. (1990). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. B. F. Skinner Foundation.

[3] Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. In Review of Educational Research (Vol. 77, Issue 1, pp. 81–112).

[4] Madsen, C. H., Becker, W. C., & Thomas, D. R. (1968). Rules, praise, and ignoring: elements of elementary classroom control1. In Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp. 139–150).

[5] Ennis, R. P., Royer, D. J., Lane, K. L., & Dunlap, K. D. (2020). Behavior-Specific Praise in Pre-K–12 Settings: Mapping the 50-Year Knowledge Base. In Behavioral Disorders (Vol. 45, Issue 3, pp. 131–147).

[7] Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. In Review of Educational Research (Vol. 77, Issue 1, pp. 81–112).

[8] Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. In Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 119, Issue 2, pp. 254–284).

[9]&[12] Brummelman, E., Crocker, J., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). The praise paradox: When and why praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Child Development Perspectives, 10(2), 111-115.

[10] Dweck, C. S. (2017). The Journey to Children’s Mindsets-and Beyond. In Child Development Perspectives (Vol. 11, Issue 2, pp. 139–144).

[11] Berger, R. (2012). Austin’s Butterfly. Models of Excellence: The Center for High Quality Student Work, EL Education.

[13] Farson, R. (1963). Praise Reappraised. Harvard Business Review.

[14] Ginott, H. G., Ginott, A., & Goddard, H. W. (2003).Between parent and child. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press