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The Power or Perils of Praise: Revisiting assumptions about praising children

The Power or Perils of Praise: Revisiting assumptions about praising children

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen SLP & Clinical Writer

I admit it….I dish out praise all the time. I don’t think twice about giving a “high five” or a “nice going!” when one of my kids accomplishes something new or challenging. And when it comes to the children I work with, I’m even more of a praise-aholic. Things don’t come easily to these children, and their motivation can wane; so aren’t they even more deserving of praise for their accomplishments? And I know I’m not alone. If you walk down the hallway of any speech therapy clinic, I’m sure you’ll hear your fair share of “good job” and “nice work.”

You can imagine my surprise then, when I attended a parenting talk at my son’s school, during which the speaker mentioned the negative effects of praise on children. Apparently, praise manipulates children so that they will fulfill an adult’s agenda, and can decrease a child’s motivation and sense of achievement. Yikes! Had I set up children for low self-esteem and poor motivation every time I said, “Well done”? Should I curb my enthusiasm?

Looking into this further, I came across an article titled “Clarifying Issues Regarding the Use of Praise with Young Children” by Mojdeh Bayat, associate professor in DePaul’s College of Education in Chicago. Bayat (2011) summarizes the debate about the use of praise with young children, with particular focus on its application to children with special needs.


A Short History of Praise

The terms “good boy” and “good girl” can be traced back to the mid-1800’s, and reflected a movement against the Puritan tradition that linked children’s naughtiness with hellfire (Bayat, 2011). These terms signal a shift to an approach which nurtured children’s self-esteem and celebrated their accomplishments. This approach is well-illustrated in a book titled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” (Branden, 1969), which suggested that many of the ills of American society resulted from lack of self-esteem, and that the key to encouraging success was to build an individual’s self-esteem (Bayat, 2011). As a result, praise became a primary means to achieve this goal. Since the publication of Branden’s book, over a thousand scholarly articles have promoted the use of praise to improve children’s motivation and school performance.

The history of praising children in the field of special education dates back to the early 1800’s, when Jean Itard educated a “wild boy” named Victor. When Victor was found at age 12, he had lived in a forest without human contact (his story was later made into a movie called “The Wild Child”). The educational methods Itard used to teach Victor cognitive and daily functional skills included praise, positive attention and reinforcement (Bayat, 2011). Itard is considered by many to be the “father of special education” due to his groundbreaking work with this child (Gargiulo & Kilgo, 2005; Bayat, 2011).

Bayat explains that, since the 1960s, when Skinnerian behaviourism became popular, praise and positive attention have been increasingly used with children, especially those with special needs. Many studies (especially from the behavioural field) have shown that praise and positive attention increase appropriate behaviours and decrease challenging behaviours in these children. Today, approaches such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and Positive Behavioural Support use positive reinforcement (including praise) to motivate children with special needs, particularly those with autism (Bayat, 2011).

What about the use of praise in more naturalistic interventions? Hepting and Goldstein (1996) reviewed 34 studies of “naturalistic” language interventions (including two involving Hanen programs), to determine the characteristics of naturalistic interventions. They found that almost half of the interventions used praise (the Hanen programs did not). The majority of these naturalistic studies delivered “desired consequences”, meaning that a natural consequence follows the child’s communication (e.g. if a child asks for more bubbles, he receives more bubbles). Hepting and Goldstein noted that the use of praise occurred much more frequently in the more adult-directed interventions. They hypothesized that this was because adult-directed interventions obliged more responses (versus initiations) from the child and, therefore, needed more explicit feedback (Hepting & Goldstein, 1996).


Why Use Praise with Children with Special Needs?

Bayat (2011) identifies some reasons why children with special needs may benefit from praise:

  • Praise may prevent learned helplessness – learned helplessness develops when a child repeatedly experiences negative outcomes in a situation, leading him to believe that he has no control over the outcomes of that specific situation. Consequently, the child may come to lack motivation, interest, or persistence. In this case, praise may provide an extrinsic motivation to encourage a child to learn.
  • Praise may prevent and decrease challenging behaviours – citing Raver & Knitzer (2002), Bayat explains that 10% of the preschool population exhibits challenging behaviours. Furthermore, many children with diagnoses such as ASD or ADHD may also have challenging behaviours. Praise may promote appropriate behaviours in that a positively reinforced behaviour is likely to recur, while an ignored behavior is likely to decrease.


The Flip Side of Praise 

...praise has the potential to undermine children’s motivation, create excessive pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce the sense of autonomy.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, some scholars started to argue against the use of praise with children. They claimed that praise has the potential to undermine children’s motivation, create excessive pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce the sense of autonomy (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). Alfie Kohn (2001), a well-known author and lecturer on this topic, explains the reasons that praise may be detrimental for young children in his article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job’!” claiming that praise:
  • manipulates children – Kohn claims that praise is a way of getting children to comply with adults’ wishes. This works in the short term because young children want approval. But Kohn argues that we should not take advantage of children’s dependence or their desire for confirmation.
  • creates praise junkies – the more praise children receive, the more they rely on our evaluations instead of forming their own judgments.
  • steals a child’s pleasure – children deserve to delight in their accomplishments, instead of being judged. Most people don’t think a statement like “Good job!” is a judgment, but Kohn argues that it’s as much an evaluation as “Bad job”.
  • decreases interest - research has shown that people tend to lose interest in activities for which they have been praised. Instead of motivating a child to engage in an activity, praise motivates a child to get more praise.
  • reduces achievement – children who are praised for creative tasks tend to stumble at the next task. This may be because of the pressure created to keep up the good work and because the child has lost interest. Furthermore, children who are praised are less likely to take risks as they may fear they won’t receive positive feedback if their performance dwindles. It’s also been found that students who receive positive reinforcement do not persist in the face of difficulties (Maclellan, 2005).


Not All Praise is Created Equal

Research has also shown that there are different types of praise, and that these have different effects on children. Distinctions have been made between person praise and process praise.

  • Person praise – is trait-oriented (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002), and evaluates a child’s attributes, like his intelligence or compliance (Bayat, 2011). Person praise such as “You’re a good girl” or “I’m very proud of you” evaluates a child globally, telling her that she is good or smart or a source of pride to her parents (Maclellan, 2005). Studies have shown that person praise reduces motivation, orients students towards performance goals, and encourages them to compare their performance with that of others (Maclellan, 2005).

    Interestingly, Bayat explains that comparable terms for “good boy” and “good girl” do not exist in European languages such as German, French or Polish. These terms are uniquely Anglo-American. Furthermore, in East Asian cultures, praise and other reward systems are rare, and the children seem to be remarkably intrinsically motivated (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002).
     
  • Process praise – is strategy- or effort-oriented (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002), and focuses on the child’s behavior and actual work (Bayat, 2011). Examples of process praise include “You tried really hard” or “I see how carefully you are building that tower.” Process praise has been shown to encourage children to develop a flexible mindset, confront their weaknesses, and take on challenges (Bayat, 2011).


How
to Praise – That is the real question 

...the question may not be “to praise or not to praise”, but rather how to provide positive feedback to young children.
As there is ample evidence to support arguments for and against the use of praise (Herderlong & Lepper, 2002), the question may not be “to praise or not to praise”, but rather how to provide positive feedback to young children. Carol Dweck and other researchers have demonstrated repeatedly over the past 20 years that process praise motivates children to work hard, learn, explore, and have a healthy outlook about their abilities (Bayat, 2011). Furthermore, praise that is sincere, promotes autonomy, and conveys realistic expectations can promote a child’s intrinsic motivation (Henderlong and Lepper, 2002).  


Using Praise in Speech Therapy with Young Children

In terms of translating these findings into our daily work, the research suggests that we provide positive feedback to young children with communication challenges as follows:

  • Describe the behaviour and effort, not the child’s person or attributes. Statements like “good girl” or “great job” undermine intrinsic motivation, and don’t provide a child with specific information that will help him or her continue the desired behaviour (Bayat, 2011). Instead, “say what you saw” (Kohn, 2001), by providing a simple, evaluation-free statement like “you used a lot of red in your picture” or “your tower is so tall!” Kohn suggests that even a simple “you did it” tells the child that you noticed, without providing a judgment.
  • Provide natural consequences – most speech-language pathologists wouldn’t think twice about blowing some bubbles when a child says “bubbles”, or responding with a contingent comment when a child points to an item in a book and labels it. However, parents who are desperate for their child to talk may come to rely on praise as a means of encouraging communication, at the expense of responding to the communication in a more natural way. Therefore, parents who respond to their child’s communication with praise can benefit from understanding the potential negative impact of praise.
  • Bayat (2011) suggests that paying positive attention to appropriate behaviour that is valued in the classroom can be effective. An encouraging description such as “I can see you are working very hard on that puzzle” or “Wow! You are sharing the toy truck with your friend” tells a child that hard work, cooperation, and positive peer relationships are valued in the learning community.
  • Avoid praise for low-challenge, low-effort, error-free success – as this tells children that they are only praiseworthy when they complete tasks quickly, easily, and perfectly, and does not help them embrace challenge (Maclellan, 2005).
  • Be careful when praising after failure or mistakes – Maclellan (2005) warns that praise following mistakes must be delivered carefully. Praise such as “Well done. You did your best” can convey pity and lead the child to believe that his mistakes were due to fixed ability/intelligence rather than to effort. At the same time, telling children to “try harder” does not give any information about how to better expend his or her effort. Perhaps providing reasonable praise for the child’s behaviour and effort (“You worked very carefully on . . .”) and then talking to the child about what s/he thinks s/he can do to improve her/his performance (“What’s another way you could  . . .?”) is another way to handle this situation
  • Choose appropriate activities – many people praise children in order to maintain their interest in an activity and to discourage misbehaviour. Instead of praising for these purposes, it is important to think about whether the child has been given something worth learning, and whether the expectations are realistic (Brandt, 1995). Speech-language pathologists are experts at thinking of fun, creative ways to promote communication skills, as well as scaffolding and upping the ante so that children are presented with a reasonable challenge. Yet, we still feel it necessary to throw a “good job!” or “nice work!” in there, even if the child is engaged, interested, and having fun. If it’s all going well, you don’t necessarily need to praise at all. And if it’s not going well, take a look at your activity or goals – maybe they need some adjustment.
  • Praise must be sincere – Henderlong & Lepper (2002) argue that praise is likely to have negative motivational consequences when it is “over general, highly effusive, or contradicted by other words or behaviours” (p. 779). Bayat (2011) concurs by explaining that “praising a child should be according to the efforts she puts in” (p. 125), and that when praise is meaningless and lavish, it loses its effectiveness.

To praise or not to praise….well, that may depend on the situation, the child’s effort, and the type of praise to be delivered. Kohn (2001) suggests that we bear in mind what our long-term goals are for our children and that we be vigilant regarding the effects of what we say. He suggests that the use of positive reinforcement isn’t necessarily positive and that we can encourage children without evaluating them. It’s all in how we praise.

To view a simplified version of this article which you can share with your colleagues as well as your clients and their families, please click here


References

Bayat, M. (2011). Clarifying Issues Regarding the Use of Praise with Young Children. Topics in Special Education, 31(2), 121-128.

Branden, N. (1969). The psychology of self-esteem. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Brandt, R. (1995). Punished by Rewards? A Conversation with Alfie Kohn. Educational Leadership, 53(1), 13-16.

Gargiulo, R. & Kilgo, J. (2005). Young Children with Special Needs – Second Edition. Clifton Park, New York: Thomson Delmar Learning.

Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M. (2002). The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 774-795.

Hepting, N., & Goldstein, H. (1996). What’s Natural About Naturalistic Language Intervention? Journal of Early Intervention, 20(3), 249-265.

Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying, “good job!”. Young Children, 56(5), 24–30.

Maclellan, E. (2005). Academic achievement: the role of praise in motivating students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 6(3), 194-206.

Raver, C. C. & Knitzer, J. (2002). Ready to Enter: What research tells policymakers about strategies to promote social and emotional school readiness among three-and four-year-old children (NCCP policy paper no. 3). New York, NY: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.