Before You Say “THAT” to Your Student … WAIT!

Image: Kenneth Lu

Have you ever been guilty of acting as a living version of a PEZ dispenser – automatically doling out candies that are virtually tasteless and unsatisfying? Confused? How about this – have you ever mindlessly walked by a student and quickly uttered “Good job!” or “Great answer!” without blinking an eye? If so, it sounds like you are delivering praise that has as much significance as those PEZ candies – essentially none!

So, what do you do? For praise to be effective, to spark motivation, and to have an impact on behavior – it must be meaningful. Rather than handing out general praise (“Keep up the good work!” and “I’m proud of you!”) that is empty of meaning, consider purposefully delivering behavior specific praise in order to reinforce the behaviors of your students. This enables students to receive feedback that gives them detailed information about what they are doing that is warranting praise, therefore, increasing the likelihood that they will engage in that behavior with the same or increased level of effort in the future.

Behavior specific praise should be:

  • an explicit description of the appropriate and desired behavior (social or academic)
  • specific to the student
  • phrased as a positive statement
Examples of
Behavior Specific Praise
Non-Examples of
Behavior Specific Praise
“Sara, I can tell that you were listening closely and really paying attention to the details to be able to describe what you thought might happen next!” “Excellent prediction, Sara!”
“Matthew, I can tell that you were committed to doing your best when completing this assignment – you double checked every problem to make sure you didn’t make any mistakes!” “Good work, Matthew.”
“Evan, I have to tell you – I’m really impressed with your decision to return to class after the whistle was blown and others ran back to the playground. It takes a lot of self-control to make these types of responsible choices. Thank you!” “Thank you, Evan.”

Why should you use behavior specific praise? Here are 5 reasons to keep in mind if you truly want to have an impact on your student’s behaviors.

Be sure to deliver behavior specific praise rather than general praise in order to:

  1. Avoid making students shy away from challenges
    • General praise is FILLED with judgment, which influences students to accept these labels given to them by important adults. For example, in kids’ minds – if someone is told they are “smart,” information and knowledge comes easily to them and academic tasks are easily accomplished. Therefore, if someone struggles, that “proves” that he/she is not smart. Kids may begin choosing simpler tasks and avoiding learning challenges in order to keep their delicate self-image intact.
    • On the other hand, this also could include adults saying, “You’re smart, you should be able to do these questions with no problem.” Kids may be more apt to expend less mental energy on it because they were told it is easy, therefore, they “shouldn’t” have to work at it.
    • Stop praising kids for their ability! Instead, praise them for things they have control over changing – effort!
  1. Avoid damaging relationships with your students
    • Bottom line – students (especially older students) know when you are being sincere and when you are not being sincere. They are more perceptive than we think!
    • Sweeping and elusive praise causes students to cast doubt on our motives – “Is Mrs. Cantrell really saying that because she means it or because she ‘has’ to since she is my teacher? And what does she really mean by ‘way to go!’ anyway?!
  1. Avoid giving evaluative statements
    • Great work” and “You’re so smart” are evaluative statements by nature.
    • How does one typically react when Person A says “You look great today” to Person B? Person B is usually quick to verbally discount the statement by saying something, such as, “Oh, I don’t think so – I barely ran a brush through my hair today” rather than accepting the compliment as sincere and true. Vague and evaluative compliments often make people uncomfortable.
    • If Person A made a comment, such as, “I love the color of the headband in your hair,” Person B is more likely to respond by saying “Thank you! I bought it last week for a great deal!” Person B, upon hearing a descriptive praise statement, is likely to recognize the truth and credit herself. Same goes for students!
  1. Avoid creating dependency
    • Making a statement, such as, “You are a very kind person” influences the student to become dependent upon the judgment of the person giving the praise. Describing what you saw that student do to demonstrate a behavior (“When you saw that Madeline fell down in the hallway, you went right over and offered your hand to help her up”) gives a much clearer picture of his or her accomplishments and characteristics.
  1. Avoid spending excess time on correcting inappropriate behavior
    • When behavior specific praise statements are implemented appropriately and consistently, it can truly have an impact on the culture and climate of a classroom.
    • When you give students specific feedback, you convey your expectations and standards. Students will know exactly what they need to do and will receive feedback on exactly what they are doing that is appropriate.
    • Engaging in the practice of utilizing behavior specific praise creates more time for instruction, results in more on-task behavior, and ultimately builds a more positive and inviting atmosphere for our students to grow and learn.

Without being truly and genuinely proud of your students, there is no praise you can give that will have a desired effect. So, lastly – if you only remember one thing, I want you to remember this – the absolute best praise you will ever give to your students will always come from the very depths of your heart!

Simmons_Erin_300pxErin Simmons
Behavior Specialist
Mid-State RSE-TASC

One thought on “Before You Say “THAT” to Your Student … WAIT!

  1. Erin, this is a wonderful post. The advice and examples are clear. The idea that general praise is helpful to students to build self-efficacy has been disproved for several years by ed psychology research. Focused feedback that specifically highlights noteworthy behaviors is perhaps the hardest thing for teachers to do–it’s simply too easy to hand out generic compliments. But kids know clearly when the praise is re deserved. They learn quickly to discount false or general praise, and it weakens the relationship between adult and student. Thanks for this good advice!

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