The best kind of praise

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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.

What did usually work much better though, was specific praise where I described exactly, in detail, what had been realistically achieved successfully or a behaviour that deserved recognition. So for example: ‘Your funny story is so entertaining to read – it made me laugh several times’, ‘sharing your crisps with X was an extremely kind thing to do’ or ‘you played fairly in that game, and I saw that you had the opportunity to cheat. Others will be more happy to play with you now.’ This puts the focus on the achievement, the positive behaviour and/or its outcome and shifts a child’s self-evaluation towards what they have done (a concrete, indisputable factor) rather than on external, meaninglessly general praise about who or what they are (which they won’t always believe anyway). Some children would still reject this specific praise but I would stand my ground and re-issue it with conviction – perhaps giving further detail.

Children have a chance of developing some self-worth from their 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. Praising achievements rather than generally praising the child, also creates less dependence on external praise as they start to focus on what they can do and gain pride and pleasure from this in itself.

Also, if I had developed a good relationship with the child, I would describe the impact their behaviour or achievement had on me. This not only helped them 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 impact on others. This might sound obvious to most adults, but it’s not always clear to children, especially young children or those who have struggled to develop empathy. I might say, ‘I feel really proud of you for the huge amount of concentration you managed today’ or ‘I feel really happy that you managed to tidy away so I wasn’t left with a mess to clear up.’

And then recently, I read this story in a book by Robert Bolton and I think it very effectively demonstrates some of what I have just written:

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.