Thoughts on Praise

Stephen Grosz on Praise

Praise doesn't build a child's confidence, so what does?

Shortly after qualifying as a psychoanalyst, I discussed all this with an eighty-year-old woman named Charlotte Stiglitz. Charlotte - the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz - taught remedial reading in northwestern Indiana for many years. 'I don't praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,' she told me. 'I praise them when they do something really difficult - like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say "thank you". When I'm slow in doing something for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn't praise a child who is playing or reading.' 

No great rewards, no terrible punishments - Charlotte's focus was on what a child did and the effort they put into doing it. 

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her - expecting praise - she smiled and said, "There is a lot of blue in your picture.' He replied, 'It's the pond near my grandmother's house - there is a bridge.' He picked up a brown crayon, and said, 'I'll show you.' Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. 

She was present. 

Being present builds a child's confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we've not been attentive to her? 

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But this attentiveness - the feeling that someone is trying to think about us - is something we want more than praise.

Shirley Clarke on Praise and Mindset

A fixed mindset is the result of a continual focus on your ability rather than your achievement and effort. Praise to young children reinforcing 'cleverness' or intelligence and exclaiming over speed of mastery gives a clear subliminal message: to get approval you need to master new things quickly, with little effort, both of which will earn you the 'clever' label. The more your ability, your speed and lack of effort are praised ('Well done! You hardly needed to think about/work at that at all! Clever girl!), the more you don't want to lose that position of greatness, so the less you want to engage in tasks which require time or effort or might lead to some kind of failure. People with a fixed mindset avoid challenging tasks for fear of failure, thus missing many valuable learning opportunities. 

Studies show that rewards - a concrete version of grades - given to a select few for their achievement, effort or behaviour, reinforced fixed mindset, for both those who get the reward and those who don't. Children do not need rewards when the culture is focused around all children competing against themselves and their own previous achievement. When there is a growth mindset culture in which the learner’s achievement is celebrated verbally and personally, and the goal is to strive for excellence, stickers and stars seem tokenistic and patronising.

Alfie Kohn on Praise

Studies conclude that rewards are ineffective. In the process of writing a book on the subject, I've found hundreds of studies showing that rewards are strikingly ineffective at producing lasting change in attitudes or behaviours. Once the rewards run out, people go right back to acting the way they did. 

Rewards don't create an enduring commitment to any value or action; they merely change what we do. 

Consider the questions that children may ask themselves. Threaten a punishment and a child will come to ask, "What am I supposed to do, and what will happen to me if I don't do it?" Bribe him by dangling a reward and he'll wonder, "What am I supposed to do, and what will I get for doing it?" Notice how similar these two questions are, and how different from what we want children to ask: 

"What kind of person do I want to be?" 

Good values have to be grown from the inside out; bribes and threats at best change children's behaviour only for a while. 

Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, "I like the way you...." or "Good ______ing," the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval. 

Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice ("Um, seven?"). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. They were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students. 

In short, "Good job!" doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons. 

Rewards simply control through seduction rather than force, according to University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci, Ph.D., and Richard Ryan, Ph.D., and all techniques that rely on control ultimately undermine what children need in order to make good decisions and take responsibility for their actions. Studies have shown, for example, that kids whose parents reward them frequently are less generous than their peers. 

Other research shows that the more students are led to focus on getting good grades, the less interested they will be in what they are studying, the less creative their thinking will be, and the more they will try to take the easy way out. Again, it makes sense: The more children see the "A" as the goal, the more they will come to see the learning itself as something to be gotten over with. The practice of paying kids for top grades -- offering, in effect, a reward for a reward -- doubles the damage. 

It's not the reward itself that's objectionable -- it's the practice of using something as a reward that causes the problem: "Do this and you'll get that." This feels controlling, causes dependence, and may spoil our relationship with our children. We risk coming to be seen as goody dispensers who have to be pleased rather than as loving and caring allies. 

If our long- term goal is more ambitious than getting kids to obey mindlessly, then we'll have to take the extra step of bringing them in on the process of making decisions. 

You might say to your seven year-old, "I've noticed that lately it's taking you a long time to get dressed in the morning, honey. What do you think we can do to solve that?" 

Rewards may be effective at training a pet, but raising good kids means working with them rather than doing things to them. 

Class Dojo - Class Don’tjo

Nearly all research points to public discipline as ineffective or counterproductive. There are many many reasons not to use publicly-displayed, one-size-fits-all behaviour systems. 

They are public 

They undermine a sense of community 

A child’s dignity, privacy, self-respect are no less real or important or valid, than yours 

Undermining a child’s privacy and dignity, damages their relationships with their peers, with you, and with themselves.

Displaying these charts publicly is in effect using public shaming as a way to control children’s behaviour. This is completely incompatible with creating a safe and nurturing environment. We can manage our classrooms without using shame to do it. 

They track behaviour, but they do not change it. 

They do not effectively allow for individual development, needs, situations, or progress. 

They create comparison and competition instead of building  community. 

We want our children to learn to 

be kind 


support one another 

be tolerant of others who are different from them 

never take pleasure in someone else’s pain 

ensure their successes don’t come at someone else’s expense 

We don’t want our children to see their classmates as competition - rather as a family full of people who help one another, and where different people work on different skills in different ways, at different rates, at different times, using different tools. 

Other reasons not to use a one-size-fits-all behaviour system 

They are reward-based. The research on rewards is pretty clear. As Alfie Kohn says “This is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings in the field of social psychology: the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward...” 

More specifically, researchers have found that people’s interest in a task ordinarily plummets when they are acutely aware of being evaluated on their performance — even if the evaluation is positive.” (The Schools Our Children Deserve)

All of the following count as rewards: 

actual trinkets from a treasure chest or class “store” 

a sticker on a chart 

special play time/extra interval/a class party

the simple act of moving a clip or card “up” a chart

In the short-term, rewards work, if by “work” you mean that they produce compliance in the form of desired behaviours. 

They do not build 

children’s self-regulatory capacities 

decision-making skills 

intrinsic motivation. 

We want our children to do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because it will earn them a treat.

Behaviour systems are about the teacher controlling the kids, not about the kids learning to control themselves. 

Behaviour is a skill, rather than an innate expression of character 

Behaviour can be learned


If behaviour can be learned, it can be taught 

If we think about behaviour as a teachable skill, just like reading, it becomes pretty obvious that we can’t expect every child to go about learning to behave in the same way, at the same rate. Just as children start school with a wide range of reading abilities, so, too, do they start with a wide range of “behaving” abilities. 

A child who struggles to read will figure out compensatory strategies, some of which are adaptive, and some of     which are disruptive. 

A child who struggles to read is already aware that others can do so. 

A child who struggles to read probably doesn’t know why he or she is struggling. 

A child who is an excellent reader will probably not be motivated by the strategies that are helpful for more             typical, or struggling readers. 

A child who is an excellent reader may be embarrassed if attention is constantly drawn to his or her strengths. 

If behaviour is a skill, like reading, every child arrives with a different  level of ability. 

If behaviour is a skill, like reading, we cannot blame or shame a child who struggles with it. 

If behaviour is a skill, like reading, children’s individual abilities and progress (or lack thereof) have reasons           behind them. 

If behaviour is a skill, like reading, it is our job to figure out the reasons. 

Sticker-Strategy Replacement 

Have a plan, a toolkit, a bank of strategies to manage your classroom consistently, calmly, and thoroughly.

Talk about how we want our class to be, develop a “code of cooperation”, and show examples of what those expectations look like. 

Help students manage themselves. 

Create classroom expectations together 

Describe explicitly what those expectations look like throughout our day and our school. 

Use children’s literature to discuss classroom behaviours, relationships, and feelings. 

When expectations are not met, use logical consequences. 

Acknowledge positive behaviours 

Use one-on-one conversations and personal behaviour plans when needed. 

Use a "Take a Break" space.

This is not a traditional "Time Out". This is a place in the classroom where children can take a moment to decompress, take a breather, or think about making different choices. Children will often go there on their own, but sometimes will be asked to go there by their teacher. The child will only stay there for about 1 or 2 minutes - use an egg timer so they don't stay too long. 

Have a basket with some helper tools in it - 

A mirror because sometimes it helps a kid to see the emotion on their own face in order to recognise it. 

Squishy balls for squeezing the tension away, a few cue cards for self calming. 

A timer to remind kids not to stay too long. 

A stuffed toy for a little snuggle 

Other Keys to Success 

Build a relationship with your students and their parents. 

The first thing each child needs learn from you is that you love them - unconditionally. 

Consider where a child comes from before he/she gets to school and  use that information. 

Have high high expectations for your students 

Ground those expectations in trust and faith that children, given the right support, and the right environment, can   manage themselves successfully and positively. 

Provide lots of freedom and lots of choice in your room. 

Remind children that freedoms and choices are privileges. 

Have a very specific understanding of what constitutes “problem behaviour.” 

A behaviour is only a problem if it interferes with a child’s safety and learning or the safety and learning of others. Period. A behaviour that is annoying to me is not automatically a problem. 

Be Fair. 

Explain Fair doesn’t mean same. 

Fair means everybody gets what they need. 

When the children understand what “fair” means, you can meet those needs without worrying about accusations of favouritism. 

Normalise the tools that help children manage their own behaviour.

Children need to know it is okay to ask for help with their behaviour. If a child asks for a break from the mat, she can have it. If he knows he will do better in line by walking with me, he can. If she can’t stop chatting with her neighbour, help her find a place to work alone. Leaving the mat, holding my hand, sitting alone, are not punishments. These are choices and tools that help children be their best selves. 

Choice is a privilege. Let children choose which “work” to do first. Children like having choices, having a say in the path their day takes. 

If they are not managing those choices well, the privilege of choice is lost. You will rarely need any consequences other than “loss of choice”. 

Look for patterns. If you are constantly correcting the same behaviour from the same child at the same time in the same spot every day, ask is there a way to break the pattern? 

Don’t have “systems” - have relationships.What works for one does not work for another and makes things even worse for a third. 

Do family building - whanaungatanga - all year. 

Do challenges together. 

When a problem arises, consider your options before speaking. 

Rather than call out a student for misbehaving pull them aside, ask them to leave the room to think about it, or do a quick check in. 

Use humour - never ever use sarcasm. 

Engagement matters. If children are engaged, they misbehave less. 

Ask the child face to face and quietly, what is going on? 

Don’t assume why a child is misbehaving, ask. Ask how they think their day is going? Take this opportunity to build a deeper relationship. 

Wipe the slate clean every day 

Be excited about learning and your class. Motivation is contagious. When one child gets excited and has an opportunity to share that enthusiasm, the contagion spreads. 

Do lots of activities on what self-control means and how when we catch ourselves and get control over our behaviours, we can be proud. 

Communicate the goal - for everyone to the right thing even when no one is watching.

When we try to teach children how to act, and react, we have to keep in mind the long term effects. We want to be teaching children to do the right things because they are the right things to do. We want to grow young people who have an internal moral compass that guides them to make good choices because they are good choices, not because we are “paying” them.

Paying them is a broad term. We pay them with praise, stickers, marbles in a jar, stars, lollipops, extra minutes at interval etc. This is bribery. It is done with the best intentions, and we often see short term benefits. The children become quiet, they stay in their seats, etc. The fact remains, they are doing it for the payment. They are focused on the  prize, and when the prize is gone, they no longer have any reason to do it.

When no one is “paying” them to take turns, be kind, or listen, they are left with a poorly developed internal motivation. Instead, we have been feeding the bribery centre in their brain.Rewards and punishments actually trigger activity in the addiction centre of the brain. We are encouraging our children to become addicted to reward – praise, stickers, sweets, class parties, etc. This does not build self motivated learners. 

It builds addicts.

To some Class Dojo specifics: 

What is Classroom Dojo is really doing to children’s focus and engagement? 

If you are a child who is generally a hard working, motivated learner, you now become a hard working, motivated “behaver.” 

Your attention is continuously being drawn away from your work to notice how you are doing on your points, or how someone else is doing. Even if the points are not being changed regularly, your attention is now divided - pulling your thinking and attention away from learning. 

If you are a child who is usually on task and doing well, but sometimes slips up, your mistakes are now made bigger. 

Your slip-ups become public errors, and they suddenly become a much bigger deal. 

If you are a child who is often getting into trouble, your troubles are there for everyone to see. 

You get a continuous reminder of your failures. 

Often teachers will say my children love Class Dojo, however, when they get down to what it is about it their children love, the argument breaks down. 

They love the avatars.

Use RazKids and give them avatars there to encourage reading. Don’t use Dojo just because of the cute monsters. 

They love the rewards.

Well who wouldn’t? We all love sweets. But again, rewards don’t build learners. 

They love what their parents say. 

That is, they love praise. Of course they do. But we need to be careful about using praise as a reward. And of course, not all the kids love what their parents say... 

Again, the most important thing a teacher can do is build relationships with their children, and build a classroom community where respect and contributions are valued and expected.

We need to use careful language with students that encourages positive behaviour and builds identities for students as contributing members of the class. 

We need to teach children that feelings, good and bad, are normal and ok. They can handle these feelings appropriately and safely, and they can set goals to improve. 

Teaching is interacting, active, engaged and engaging. 

Teaching is not sitting at a desk grading children’s behaviour and typing in reasons for that arbitrary grading.

We want teachers conferencing with children, providing quality feed-forward and feed-back for each individual learner. 

The locus of learning is with the child.

The focus of learning is on the learning and not on the behaviour.

When you are tracking behaviour, sending out updates of the grading and the reasoning every few minutes, there is no time for the above. The locus has then moved to you, the focus has then moved to behaviour.

If the learning is powerful, relevant, challenging, achievable, targeted at each individual according to their needs, interests and at their general level of capability, behaviour is generally not an issue. 

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