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The Role of Praise: Inspiring & Encouraging Deeper Learning

When children take on new challenges and learn new skills, their brains respond by forming new connections. As educators and caregivers, we are naturally eager to support children in their endeavors, and to let them know that we’re excited about their accomplishments. Recently, research has highlighted the impact on child development of the words we use when we praise young children. We want to ensure that praise is helpful and encourages children to maintain their natural sense of curiosity. In this article, we share a few specific tips for praising young children in a way that supports inquiry and exploration and inspires children to continue welcoming new challenges.

The Importance of Praise for Development

When children complete a challenging task, they feel proud. And, they will often check in with their caregivers to see if their accomplishment was noticed.  In these moments, offering praise or words of encouragement is especially helpful and supportive of young children’s learning. According to an article from the website, Raising Children, praise nurtures a young child’s developing “confidence and sense of self.”

cartoon image of child with curly hair; learning

Using praise allows us to demonstrate to children how to think positively about themselves, which is an important component of social and emotional development. When children receive praise, it also supports their growing emotional vocabulary by putting language to the feelings that they are experiencing, such as pride or a sense of accomplishment, especially after learning a new skill.

Beyond Good Job: Offering Meaningful Praise

When we see children complete a challenging task, some of the most common things we hear are phrases like…Good job! You’re so smart! You’re such an artist! However, these phrases may not be as encouraging as they seem. The problem with all the “good jobs” and descriptive exclamations is that they can focus on final products or on the child’s traits, while not paying attention to the child’s effort.  Additionally, they can lose meaning over time, both for the caregiver and for the child — as they become more of an automatic response, rather than a thoughtful acknowledgment of how hard the child has been working.

In an article on its website, Early Learning Nation points out that  “saying things like ‘You’re so smart! Look how smart you are!’…provides little access to action. You’re either smart or you’re not; you’re either the best little athlete in the world or you’re not. The praise of traits and characteristics fosters the child’s desire to hang onto their smartness or cuteness or cleverness that earned the praise, rather than building an eagerness for mastery, a drive to keep taking on new challenges.”

So, what does meaningful praise look like? NAEYC explains that feedback is meaningful when it is positive and relevant. Praise is particularly effective when teachers “describe specifically what they see—without generalizing, evaluating, or making comparisons.” To demonstrate what this might look like, NAEYC shares the following example: “When Emily finishes her drawing, Ms. Coz notices her picture and her smile. Ms. Coz says, ‘I see a blue sky, a yellow sun, and green grass around the big brown tree. This picture makes you happy, doesn’t it?’ This praise is effective because Ms. Coz offers detailed, positive comments immediately after desirable behavior occurs.” The educator gives a detailed description of her observations, highlighting how proud she is of the child’s effort and behavior and calling attention to the child’s feelings of joy and pride.

Praise to Build Resiliency

Effective praise helps children to develop grit. It inspires them to feel confident in their ability to be successful — even in the face of adversity, and even if they have to try more than once.

Ellen Gallinsky, chief science officer for the Bezos Family Foundation and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, explains “There has been a lot of emphasis in recent years on building a child’s self-esteem and resiliency…but I want to see us go a step beyond that. Remember those little figures that, no matter what you did, they would always pop back up? (Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!) Well, all that bouncing back and bouncing up again really isn’t taking anyone forward. I’m interested in kids who take the next step forward, who try harder. The challenges we encounter in life aren’t predictable—I mean, look at this pandemic year—and we want kids who can take on those challenges.”

Further Reading & Research

If you are looking for more information about effective praise, you might be interested in the following articles and resources:

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