The best kind of praise

Published Categorized as self esteem

I worked for ten years in a pupil referral unit with children who struggled to regulate their emotions, who regularly engaged in challenging behaviours and often had extremely low self-esteem. Something I intuited from my time there was the ineffectiveness of generally praising comments like, ‘that’s great’ or ‘you’re brilliant.’ Because the children’s self-esteem was often so low, you could see that these kinds of comments almost had the opposite of the intended effect on the children as their low self-worth meant the voice inside their heads told them that the comment simply was not true. They would turn the comment to its opposite either inside their head or out loud and believe that instead. Some would be visibly pained by such sweeping praise and clearly really could not receive it. This was also true of many children I taught in mainstream schools too.

Praise also has a downside anyway – as counter-intuitive as that sounds. It is an evaluation, and a child ( especially one with low self-esteem) will think that the adult issuing praise only values them as long as they achieve what they got praise for. They will have an unconscious sense that approval is conditional and this creates a feeling that they will only be liked for what they did or did not do, not for who they are. However, in a school setting, the culture is focused on achievement and the aim, therefore, is surely to get children to be pleased with their own achievements (intrinsically) rather than to simply get praise.

So, first and foremost, if my praise was to have any impact, I needed to have developed a good relationship with the child. If I hadn’t, whatever I said was of no significance to the child. Once the relationship was reasonably secure (could often take a long time), I needed to make praise far more specific than, ‘that’s great.’  In my attempt to make praise have as positive an effect as possible, I would:

  • be specific about what was positive,
  • describe the impact the positive behaviour or achievement had on me and/or others and, most importantly,
  • encourage the child to evaluate their own behaviour and its impact.

Being specific about what is positive gives direct and clear focus on what you are about to praise. Describing the impact of the behaviour not only helped children receive my praise (as after all they could not dispute how I was feeling), it also meant that they could develop some emotional literacy and understand that their behaviour has an effect on others. And the encouragement to reflect upon how they felt about their own behaviour would help them develop some ability to self-evaluate. I might say, ‘I feel really proud of you for the huge amount of concentration you managed today, you must be proud too’ or ‘I feel really happy that you managed to tidy away so others weren’t left with a mess to clear up. Can you see how kind you’ve been?’

Within a school setting which has this focus on achievement, children have a chance of developing some self-worth from achievements, even if they don’t feel great about themselves.  In an ideal world, we would all be able to evaluate our achievements and behaviours ourselves without the need for external approval but this is a rare thing in adults, let alone children. When you do praise achievements (including effort), I think the ultimate aim is to help a child develop less dependence on external praise and start to focus on what they can do and gain pride and pleasure from this in itself.

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Just to add, recently, I read this story in a book by Robert Bolton and I think it very effectively demonstrates the need to be specific when issuing praise:

An incident in the life of Pablo Casals, a famous cellist, illustrates the difference between evaluative praise and descriptive recognition. When a young cellist named Gregor Piatigorsky first met Casals, Piatigorsky was asked to play. He was nervous and gave what he believed a terrible performance – so bad that he stopped in the middle of the sonata. ‘Bravo! Wonderful!’ Casals applauded. Piatigorsky said, ‘bewildered, I left. I knew how badly I had played. Why did he, the master, have to praise and embarrass me?’

Years later when the two great cellists were together again, Piatigorsky told Casals how he felt about the praise a few years before. Casals rushed to the cello angrily. ‘Listen!’ he said as he played a phrase from the Beethoven Sonata. ‘Did you play this fingering? It was novel to me……And didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?’ The master went through all the music, emphasising all he liked that Piatigorsky had done. The younger cellist said of that evening, ‘I left with the feeling of having been with a great artist and a friend.’

On both evenings, Casals had the same goal – to acknowledge the great skill of the younger musician. But the methods and the results were different. On the first occasion, he used evaluative praise. He said it was, ‘wonderful’ and ‘magnificent’. Piatigorsky was bewildered and embarrassed and, it would seem, he was angry, too. At their next gathering, Casals provided a descriptive recognition of the behaviours. Piatigorsky was deeply moved by these explicit statements about his artistry.