Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If I don't praise children, what can I do?

My class went for our afternoon walk to the local park when upon our way back, we came across an elderly woman who was struggling with her purse when she dropped her cell phone.

When the phone dropped, I was walking next to Amber, who I've taken it upon myself to teach and model some rather desperately needed social skills. Once the phone hit the ground, I subtly turned to Amber to see if she noticed. She casually walked towards the phone, picked it up and handed to the lady.

The lady smiled back and said thank you. 

Amber replied with you're welcome.

I then had to make a decision - I really wanted to say something to help Amber recognize the virtue of her kindness. I wanted to encourage Amber to see how her act of good-will benefited not herself but the elderly lady.

You see, that's the rub. 

If I praise Amber by saying "good job", it's the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face - like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her. After all, praise from an authority figure such as a teacher is something that can feel awfully nice to receive, but I'll be honest with you, Amber is as narcissistic as she needs to be. She certainly does not require anything, such as praise, that would encourage her to think of herself anymore than she already does.

So instead of dropping the "good job" like the verbal tick it has become, I said, "did you see the smile on that ladies face?"

Amber looked at me with an ear-to-ear grin and said, "yeah, I did."

And that was all I needed to say.

The trick here is that rather than simply lathering on the praise, I invited Amber to reflect on how her actions made someone else feel. You'll notice that I did not ask Amber how picking up the cell phone made her feel - rather I asked how this act of kindness made the lady feel. This is important because I believe our motivations matter - in other words, it's not enough that Amber was kind. I want her to be kind for the right reasons. I want her to be kind because of how it will affect others and not because being kind will land her in the teacher's good books.

The point here is teach a kind of character education that encourages Amber to serve others because it will help others and not simply as a means to an end to benefit her own status.

Here is an invaluable chart that Alfie Kohn offers from his book Unconditional Parenting:

If the idea of removing praise from your interactions with children bothers you, I invite you to think about two things.

Firstly cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously, is never convenient.

Secondly, when asked to rethink some of your most cherished pedagogical practices, consider what Mark Twain was on to when he said:
It ain't what we don't know that get's us in trouble. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.
For a deeper understanding of the pitfalls of praise:


  1. Great post. Thanks. This has given me some great things to think about.

  2. I'm glad you found this post helpful. Thank you for commenting.

  3. I considered not replying that I've been trying some of these approaches lately at school and with my own kids at home. I considered not mentioning that it's amazing how often praise is given and how hard it is, in the moment, not to praise. But I wanted a "thank you for commenting" comment in return :) Is a thank you the same as praise? In some cases?

  4. I struggle to curb my knee-jerk reaction of "good job!" but I find it difficult to know what to do instead. I'm going to have to read Alfie Kohn's work. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  5. Joe and other readers, I'm curious what you think of this, something that's been bothering me lately with my 1st and 2nd grade students with disabilities.

    I am noticing two girls in particular who seem so demanding of my praise that when they do work, say draw a picture or spell a word, they instinctively wave the paper in my direction and eagerly ask, "Like this?" Today, I even witnessed one of them walk across the room to my para to get her approval (this may be more the para's fault.) Anyway, I have responded to these girls with some tough love, saying, in essence, "You know what to do, you don't need me to tell you it's right." I am just worried that they have become so dependent on the approval of others that they're not even trying to think for themselves (which they both can certainly do).

    It's not too closely related to this post, but there is a slight connection. Your thoughts?

  6. @photmatt7: Firstly, someone who has likes praise or even performs better when they receive praise is not a learning style to be accommodated; rather it is a problem to be solved. Because autonomy should be a primary aim of school, we can not sabotage our long term goal (autonomy) by garnishing short-term gains (achievement) via control through seduction (praise).

    I would need to know far more about these two children and their relationship with you to give any real specifics of advice; however, I might suggest that when they ask for praise or for your judgement that you ask them first for their judgement. Ask them to reflect on themselves BEFORE you offer your judgement.

    I've done this before, and I've found that kids start to rely more on their own judgment than mine, when I encourage them to do their own thinking before hearing mine.


  7. Wow, excellent post on a topic that isn't talked about enough in education. I try to be stingy with my praise--I don't give it out very often. I might raise an eyebrow or give a wink, but I wait unit a student or group has really blown me away before I praise them. However, this completely makes sense--praising good work in school can turn potential intrinsic motivation into extrinsic. I read this to my wife and she asked about our 2 year old. When she shares well with our neighbor girl, can we praise then? I looked at the Kohn image--great stuff, but I wonder if it can work with pre-K kids too. By the way, I really enjoy your posts. I have shared your work with my colleagues and even my superintendent is a avid reader.
    Thanks for all you do!
    Justin Vail


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