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Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Friday, March 19th, 2010

After reading Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s thought-provoking article about the power and peril of praising kids, I was eager to know—how should I be praising the kids I tutor? I was totally pumped to find a series of excellent posts on her and Po’s blog which offer specific tips on how to praise kids.

Here’s a summary.

1. Don’t offer global statements. For example, if a kid makes a vase, instead of saying, “you’re such a talented artist!”, compliment the making of the vase.

2. Be sincere.

3. Don’t use empty praise. (Once you do, your credibility is gone.)

4. Scale back the amount of praise. “Instead of saying how great something is, just a pat-on-the-back and it’s over, start a conversation with the child about her work. ‘Look how you used the color red instead of green for the grass. Tell me about why you did that.’ ”

5. Be specific. Instead of, “you’re a great writer,” say something like, “I like the way you introduced his character in your story—it’s very clear that he’s who the story’s about.”

6. Praise the process. Example: “It was a good idea to finish reading the chapter before playing video games, instead of stopping in the middle.” “I noticed you paid attention to the coach through the whole game.” But don’t praise only effort—also praise strategies, decisions, and other aspects of the student’s approach.

7. Don’t connect praise with promises of future success. Don’t say, “…and I’m sure you’ll do well.” It’s too uncertain.

8. Don’t confuse praise with encouragement. “When a kid gets stuck, don’t say, “You’re smart; I know you can do this.” “Rather than the kid with an empty attempt at boosting his self-esteem, the better thing to have said is, ‘Honey, I know it seems hard, but we’ll work on it together. I think if you work hard, you can get this,’ or ‘Just do what you can, and if you’re stuck, we’ll figure out where you got lost,’ or even just, ‘You can do it.’”

9. Timing is everything. “Don’t interrupt a kid who’s working really hard to tell him, ‘You’re working really hard.’” Praising a kid can ruin their concentration and redirect their focus away from their task to worrying about what you think of them. “Hold your applause to the very end.”

10. Avoid praising in public.

11. Don’t praise to avoid giving criticism or addressing failure.

12. Don’t praise underserved success.

13. Know your praise audience. While “a younger child takes your praise at face value… by the time a kid’s a teenager, no praise at all—just straight unadorned feedback—may be more effective than actual words of praise.”

14. Avoid praise inflation.

15. The praise uber-tip: be honest.

Ashley’s original posts explain the reasoning behind each tip in glorious detail!

The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March

2 Comments on “Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman”

  • elizabeth on March 21st 10:19 pm

    Hey Rebecca, I’m finally getting around to commenting. I so happy I discovered your blog, I’m learning so much already, and I’ve especially appreciated the discussion you’ve started on praise. In my experience it’s ineffective as a motivator, and while I disagree that it’s harmful, once I saw that it wasn’t working, I began to rethink what I as doing, and what my goals were in praising my son, who has a lot of fear around math that leads him to give up when a problem seems to hard, when a solution is not immediately apparent, etc.

    Telling him how smart he was did not encourage him to try harder, to tackle more difficult problems, etc. Probably because he didn’t believe me. Even math-challenged kids are smart enough to know when the wool’s being pulled over their eyes. I realized that in the moments when he was struggling, he was not able to receive the praise anyway.

    I realized my goal was to build his confidence, his willingness to try to work through difficult problems. That meant taking him back a few grade levels so that he could begin to experience “competence.” I’ve come to realize it is only by experiencing “competence” that we develop a sense of ourselves as “competent.” The source of confidence is not praise but success. When we’re successful, we know it, we don’t need the praise. And I’m sure you’ve seen it, when kids finally get something, how their faces light up. It’s only at those moments that they’re able to receive praise, and I think within the guidelines Ashley suggests, it’s perfectly appropriate.

  • Rebecca Zook on March 29th 10:39 pm

    Elizabeth, I am thrilled to read your comment and hear your thoughts about praising your son! That is really interesting that it’s when they get it – when their faces light up – that they’re able to receive praise. I will definitely be thinking about that as I overhaul and re-script how I praise my students!

    The source of confidence is not praise but success.” This is so true!!! I think our culture bought into a big lie where we replaced self-determination and actual efficacy with ‘self-esteem.’ Learning to DO is so gratifying, and ultimately my goal as an educator is to help students experience the feeling of mastery this way. It sounds like this is your goal as a parent, too.

    I also totally agree with you about going back and filling in the missing links. It can be really humbling to do this, but it’s the only way to move forward.

    I look forward to hearing more of your ideas!!

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