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How much praise should you give primary pupils?

It’s a double-edged sword, either helping or hindering – so what type of approval should teachers give their children and when, ask Bradley Busch and Edward Watson...

  • How much praise should you give primary pupils?

Wielded correctly, praise can help students flourish and increase their confidence, self-belief and reinforce their learning; when used incorrectly, it can result in pupils becoming too dependent on it and seeking it out too much.

Praise can have an unintended negative impact on children when it falls into one of three categories: if it is excessive; if it focuses on natural ability; and if it is used in comparison to others.

Praise is best thought of like penicillin. It should not be administered haphazardly and excessive doses can lead to people developing immunity to it.

For example, one study found that too much praise often comes across as patronising and resulted in pupils lowering their standards as they were being acknowledged for things that should already have been expected of them.

This chimes with our anecdotal experience, as we have heard from many teachers who say that once you start praising children too much, they become reliant on it.

For example, if you think it is standard behaviour for students to put their hands up to ask a question, then once they have done this a few times it makes little sense to continue to praise this.

Natural ability

When students do well in an exam or on a piece of work, it is not uncommon for them to be told that they are ‘a smart boy’ or ‘such a clever girl’.

However, this type of praise is often unhelpful for two reasons.

Firstly, it does not provide a template for what they should do next time (as how does one ‘be clever’ again in the future?) and secondly, if they are told they are smart when they succeed, what are they to deduce about their intelligence if they fail?

If a student’s perception of where they lie on the smart-dumb continuum is brought into question with every piece of work, then evidence suggests this leads to excessive stress, shaky self-confidence and ultimately students disengaging from the task at hand.

Comparison

We have been told by many of the teachers we work with that as children progress in primary school, their sense of competition with one another increases.

Although this can have a short-term boost to motivation, it is a poor long-term strategy as emerging research has indicated that those who are often praised compared to others exhibit more narcissistic behaviour.

Comparing to others is a zero-sum game, as for one to be up, another must be down. To help children develop a robust motivation for learning, the focus needs to be on their individual development and improvement, rather than how they did in relation to others.

Three ‘S’s

We have been into over 300 schools, running workshops with staff, students and parents. Over the years, we have developed and taught the concept of ‘purposeful praise’.

The best way to think about purposeful praise is that the only thing you should praise are the behaviours you want to see next time. Everything else is hot air. To help ensure your praise is purposeful, it should fall into one of these three ‘S’s:

Selectively

What are the values and behaviours you value the most in your classroom? If curiosity, courage, effort and persistence are key to learning, then these are the things that should be praised.

For example, one primary school teacher once told us that they prioritise praising their students if they demonstrate resilience, as they believe this to be fundamental for success both in and outside of school.

Sparingly

Too much of anything is bad for someone. By consciously choosing when to praise someone, it will have more of an effect than if they receive praise all the time.

Specifically

As with most psychological interventions, a one-size-fits-all approach often fails to hit the mark. Carefully consider the individual student and frame praise in terms of their individual development as it will be more likely to resonate and be more effective.

Final thought

Praise is how we communicate to students what we think matters and what’s important. When viewed in this light, it makes much more sense to praise the processes, behaviours and attitudes that you think lead to both better learning and development.


Bradley Busch and Edward Watson are the authors of The Science of Learning: 77 studies that every teacher needs to know, published by Routledge.

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