As a nursery owner, manager, Early Years Teacher and MA student I review research, reflecting on current practice and make judgements on how we can best support children’s emotional, social, physical and education needs. Recently, a couple came to me with an alternative approach to how they offered their child praise. It made me think more carefully about how praise is offered in my setting.

by Deborah Tidey, The Nest, Brighton

Like anything in child rearing there is no one sure fire approach that is going to guarantee a desired outcome. For each child comes with their own complex set of ever changing needs and personality traits. How we praise our children and its effects on the child’s natural enjoyment and appreciation in favour of being driven by pressure to perform or constraints is no exception to this rule.

Praise is the positive evaluation that one makes. It is different to feedback and acknowledgement such as “that’s right” or “you scored 80%”. When we offer praise, we are making a judgement.

On a whole, it is generally accepted by society that praise only has positive effects on children. We make a point to praise children for their accomplishments, and we expect our praise to enhance their motivation and boost their self-esteem. Parents are actively encouraged to be positive and praise their children to demonstrate their approval and encourage desirable behaviours.

In reality you may have observed a child who has given up on an activity when praise has been offered or a child who finds praise uncomfortable, particularly in social situations, or even a child who will deliberately misbehave to prove you wrong. In fact, you may be familiar with some of these feelings in your own exchanges as adults too, along with the pressure of needing to perform to the same standard next time or not taking a risk just in case you fail.

There is no questioning that praise does have beneficial affects too but praise cannot be administered haphazardly. Careful consideration should be given to sincerity of praise offered, what is being praised, whether it promotes autonomy, social comparisons and if realistic standards and expectations
are conveyed.

The process through which praise can reduce autonomy and serve as a controlling reward was described by Gordon (1989): “Praise especially acts as an extrinsic reward, and its effect on children is quite predictable. Children who are subjected to frequent praise learn to select only those things they think will please their parents and avoid doing those things that may not. While to some parents, this may seem very desirable, we know that such children are much less apt to become innovative, creative, self-directing. They learn to conform rather than innovate, and to follow a pattern known to bring praise rather than to experiment with something new.”

Only individuals who believe their actions have been autonomous are likely to continue performing that behaviour. So how can we continue to offer praise where praise is due and how can we avoid offering praise that may hinder a child’s autonomy?

It is well documented that praising the process rather than praising the product or person is beneficial to children’s outcomes. This will help the child to identify what they did that helped them to accomplish the result, thus highlighting their autonomous steps. For example, your child may have drawn a picture, instead of saying “it’s beautiful” or “you’re so clever” you may consider saying “I can tell that you have really focused on staying inside the lines” or “I can tell that you put lots of effort into that picture” or even “you could tell your friend really wanted to have a turn.”

Process praise focuses on the enthusiasm, effort, ideas, persistence or a specific problem solving approach. Process praise does not focus on a fixed quality of the child, such as being smart. By saying to a child “you are really smart” we are suggesting that they must be smart in order to qualify for praise, or that being smart is a fixed quality that cannot be changed. After receiving praise that focuses on the product or the person, children may later conclude, “My successes made me clever, therefore my difficulties make me dumb”. Children who receive process praise are more likely to rise after setbacks, try harder and are less likely to give up. Process praise also demonstrates a deeper sincerity by focusing on steps specific to the goal the child is trying to reach. Always saying “It’s beautiful,” “well done,” or “clever girl” seems to carry less meaning when we have said it 100 times.

So continue praising your children, giving careful thought to how your words may be interpreted by them. Try using process praise to help your children develop a more resilient approach to learning and to become more autonomous learners.

Deborah Tidey is an Early Years Teacher, Director and Manager at The Nest, Brighton. We have spaces in our brand new nursery and preschool in Queens Park, Brighton and limited spaces at our Outstanding nursery in Hove.
www.thenestnurseryschool.co.uk