Let’s face it - As mothers and fathers, we all use the words, ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ more often than others. We tend to believe that we mean well in our remonstrations, trying to teach our children valuable lessons, or to get them to behave. Alternatively, we lavish them with praise, which is warm and nurturing in its intention but does not have meaningful benefits on a child’s psyche. While too much chiding and criticism can dent confidence and self-esteem, too much of a good thing can be just as counter-productive. Praising your children for just about everything can result in them getting spoilt, smug and complacent. Psychologists believe that praise, when used ‘effectively’, at the right time, in the right situation, can go a long way in positively influencing children.
What is effective praise?
Studies around the world have shown that using praise as a positive reinforcement of behavioural patterns is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that a child retains those patterns. As compared to reprimands and negative feedback, which drive a child to act with guilt/fear/anger, praise drives changes through positive emotions. The result is that the change driven by praise tends to last longer and has better chances of being imbibed.
How is effective praise different from the regular praise that parents dole out to their children? Well, we interact with Aparna Balasundaram, a Delhi-based counsellor and co-founder of The Lighthouse Organisation, to understand the subject better. “Effective praise involves appreciating and encouraging the effort a child puts into a certain task or behaviour irrespective of the result. The child becomes more aware and confident of his own abilities rather than a goal that may not be in his control. This helps build self-confidence and self-reliance. Praising children in a diffused or extravagant manner is confusing to them because the little minds are unable to grasp what is being approved. Commending their effort to attain a certain goal is reassuring since the child gains clarity on the exact action that has garnered his parent’s approval.” Praise the attempt rather than just the results as this enhances their sense of self-motivation and grit. For example, as a parent, you could say, ‘I am so happy that you put so much thought into your school assignment’, or ‘I am proud that you studied so hard for this exam’, or ‘It is wonderful how determined you are to learn how to cycle’.
How do you ‘effectively praise’ your children?
One of the most important aspects is to encourage children to be self-motivated through praise. You can do this by helping your child recognise and address the emotions and feelings they connect with a certain behaviour or attempt. "The idea is to build a child's self-efficacy that helps her do praise-worthy things even when you are not looking or involved as a parent. Apart from offering your external praise, ask your children how they feel when they succeed or work hard. If they cannot verbalise it, help them by bringing it to their notice. For example, you could say something like ‘You must be feeling very happy and proud that you got selected for the school editorial board/cricket team. Your hard work surely paid off’," advises Aparna.
The verbal reinforcement is best accompanied with physical gestures of warmth and affection. A pat on the back, a warm hug and a genuine smile go a long way in letting your child know how much his efforts mean to you.
Remember, children are extremely receptive to your body language. Praise is also most effective when it is given immediately and in a specific language.
Remember to avoid back-handed praise, which combines your feedback with sarcasm or criticism. After all, praise loses its meaning when placed alongside negative emotions. Aparna adds, "It is important to avoid being vague in compliments or using contradictory terms. For example, if your toddler gulps down her glass of milk and you end up stating, 'Oh good, you finished your milk! Why can’t you do this each time instead of waiting for me to scold you?' Now, this is very confusing since you are combining a compliment with a reprimand. Praise is essentially lost. Focus on the immediate effort from the child and praise in simple language. Remember to praise children on the basis of their age and ability. Praising a toddler on brushing her teeth is good but the same won’t apply to a seven-year-old!"
Effective praise in school
Positive methods of reinforcing ideas are considered valuable tools for educators to employ when dealing with young and impressionable minds. It is important to note that children, these days, spend more time at school than they do at home. This is where the role of teachers comes in. They play a big role in building confidence and self-esteem of their students. Using praise to encourage students and recognising skills is more effective than disapproval. This will create lasting impressions.
Effective praise, when used systematically to encourage good behaviour, depends greatly on seizing an appropriate moment to dole out praise. Choosing the right psychological moment to provide positive feedback is strongly associated with such behaviour being repeated in future.
Here are a few tips for teachers and educators to use effective praise to encourage and motivate their students:
Know when to use it: Use effective praise not as a general motivator or a boost, but as an indicator of specific behaviour or the learning of a new skill set. This allows the brain to be more receptive to positive feedback.
Be specific: Use specific terms to define what it is that is being praised and encouraged. This helps draw the child’s attention to the actual behaviour being appreciated. For example, if a student has been exceptionally attentive and receptive in class, you could say, "It is wonderful to see you being so attentive in class and I greatly appreciate that you had so many questions related to the subject."
Use the power of reasoning: Along with positive feedback, it is important to provide the child with a good sense of reasoning for encouraging such behaviour. Taking the same example as in the point above, you could say, "By being so attentive in class today, you have absorbed a lot more of what has been taught in today’s lesson. The questions you asked were a good indicator of how much you understood while also clearing your doubts. You are now prepared for the next lesson."
Ensure comprehension: Make sure you have your student’s attention by involving him in the conversation, rather than making your praise an ineffective monologue. Your child should understand what he is praised for. Therefore, always connect the praise to the action.
Emphasise with positive consequence: A great way to underline positive feedback, especially in the case of young children, is to follow praise with a favourable consequence or a bonus. Taking the same example, you could say, "For being so attentive and participative in today’s class, you get to read out your favourite passage from the lesson."
Make it straight from the heart: Remember children are more sensitive to body language and tone. So, when you are praising a child, let her know you mean it. Smile, good eye contact and friendly body language can make a big difference.
Like most things in life, it is best not to overdo praise. The key to using praise effectively is to know when and how to use it. Aparna concludes, “Praise should be authentic and timely, and the child should feel a sense of accomplishment.” After all, even the sun, with its life-nurturing force, can scorch and parch the supple sapling.