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Praise Can Unlock Outstanding Behaviour in the Early Years

Meaningful commendation will do wonders for your children’s motivation, says Nikky Smedley...

  • Praise Can Unlock Outstanding Behaviour in the Early Years

What do you really like when being addressed by an adult?

“I like being praised and being spoken to nicely. I like when they (adults) are proud of you.”

– A (male)

The little boy quoted above was very focused on the injustice he felt through being told off ‘for no reason’ and he really disliked grown-ups getting angry with him when he didn’t understand why.

This response is the flip side to that. However, it’s just as important for children to understand why they are being praised as it is for them to understand why they are being told off.

There are those who are fans of praising profusely and often, and then there are those who prefer to hold back praise, advocating rationing in order to prevent commendation becoming meaningless.

Most of us probably sit somewhere in the middle. The important thing is that we are consistent and that we are clear as to what exactly it is that we are praising.

When teaching, I like to praise frequently and sincerely, but I try very hard to be specific about it, so that the child understands precisely what is being met with my approval.

I also try to take myself out of the equation. That is to say, “That tower you have built is really tall and stable – that’s a great job,” rather than, “I really like that tower you built – I think it’s lovely.”

Focusing on our feelings about children’s efforts implies that the purpose of their actions is to please us, and it undermines children’s sense of self-control and intrinsic motivation.

If, instead, we focus on children’s actions, we send the clear message that they are in charge of their learning and that the benefits are for their own growth and development.

Similarly, if we congratulate children on their deeds rather than on some intrinsic personal quality, for example saying, “That’s a really smart answer”, rather than, “You’re really clever”, we give the child a reason to try to replicate that high performance in the future, rather than to start to believe an inherent truth about themselves.

This is doubly important when we are pointing out a negative rather than a positive. If we are telling off a child, it’s imperative that they understand that it is their actions that we disapprove of, rather than their intrinsic personality.

Create ‘can-do’ attitudes

Children will be enthusiastic about things they feel they are good at or can do, and they’ll want to avoid things they feel they can’t achieve. It seems obvious, but it’s only too easy to let something slip that will colour their attitude to the task in hand for the foreseeable future.

It can be helpful to start from a position of assuming that they have the ability to achieve whatever it is, even if they may not have quite figured out how just yet.

To encourage specific behaviours and values in your children, foster an environment where they are encouraged to identify and praise that which is desirable in each other.

It’s not just in the eyes of adults that children want to shine; it means a lot to them to have their efforts recognised by their peers too.

Everyone has something in them that is worthy of praise, and which should engender pride.

It’s up to us to clearly acknowledge our children’s achievements, to help them develop a sense of self-worth and a belief in their ability to show the best of themselves if we truly want them to thrive.

Nikky Smedley is a writer, educator and passionate advocate for the child. Her book Create, Perform, Teach! (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £14.99) is out now.


Learn more

As part of the How to Speak Child project, Nikky has been collecting interviews with children about how adults communicate with them. she’ll look at a selection of prominent themes over the course of the series, but to read more now, you can…

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