Compliments- good, bad, or ugly????
I get asked this question frequently about giving praise to children. I am a big supporter of positive behavior support and part of the philosophy is to catch students being good. My own email is “caughtyoubeinggood”, so the act of catching children being good is very important to me. However, the delivery of praise is very important. I’d like to start this discussion by telling you about two very different principals I had over the years and how they affected me with their praise.
My very first principal ever was a guy we will call George. Mr. George came into my room once a year. He would sit and watch me for 15 minutes and then write on a post-it note and leave it on my desk. The post-it note said, “Good Job”. I’m sure he thought this was high praise. It actually meant nothing to me. I did not know if I did a good job with the one math lesson he happened to observe, if my proximity standards were used well, or if my wait time was excellent. At the end of the day, I would have my daily evaluation in my box that said, “Laura does a good job.”
Later in my career I moved to North Carolina. I had a principal that I will call Wilford. Mr. Wilford was in my room the first week of school an hour a day. He would be sitting in the back smiling and watching me and writing, writing, writing on his clipboard. I was a nervous wreck. I must be terrible. Why is he in here? Am I doing a good job? He just smiled and left each day before the end of the day. At the end of the first week, I went into Mr. Wilford’s office. He said, “Laura, I’m so glad you came in. I wanted to talk to you. I love the way you use wait time in your class. Did you take a class on that? Also, the way you move around the room while you are teaching is phenomenal. I really like that.” I said, “Oh Mr. Wilford, I’m so happy to hear this. I am not used to a principal staying in my room for so long each day and I thought I must be horrible.” He laughed and said, “I come into your room to do my reports. I could listen to you talk all day. Why the way you talk to those kids, I bet you could teach them how to build a nuclear reactor and they’d do it.” He said, “I think it’s your accent, but they hang on your every word.” (I don’t have an accent- people in North Carolina have an accent J ).
Mr. Wilford and I had a great relationship. He told me when he saw me do something good and he also told me when he saw me do something he didn’t like and how to fix it. In North Carolina, we had to teach our own Physical Education and our own Music. These are not my two best subjects. Mr. Wilford helped me become better at all the things by giving me behavior specific praise and behavior specific critiques. I believe Mr. Wilford helped me become a better teacher and Mr. George did nothing to improve my teaching abilities.
So what does this mean for kids? Does it hurt kids to get a compliment? I do not believe compliments hinder a child’s growth, as long as the praise or compliment is behavior specific. I want adults to say things like, “The way you held the door open for someone with their arms full is a great way to show respect to others.” This is teaching a child and all those within earshot of the praise what is important. However, if a child had held the door open and I smiled and said, “Good job.” That comment would have meant very little to help the child and those around become better learners.
I believe compliments about academics are the same. I don’t think writing “good job” on a paper means anything and is actually not helpful at all. However, if you write three things you did well on this paper and one thing I wish you would work on, that would immensely help a child. “The spacing of your cursive handwriting made it easy for me to read.” “The way you used personification in this story made it easy for me to visualize the setting.” “The action words you chose to put in the climax of the story made it a pivotal piece to the ending.” “I wish you would add some more detail to the main characters.” “Can’t wait to read this paper again.” These kinds of compliments or praise would be quite helpful to children.
Whenever I train universal supports for behavior in a systemic change within the school, I always have someone who does not like the part about giving out little slips of paper denoting what it was the child did correctly. We call these slips “gotchas”. If they are given properly with verbal behavior specific praise, the child and all those around will learn what is of value. It is very difficult to be intrinsically motivated if we do not know what is of value. I believe that behavior specific praise teaches us what is of value.
For instance, when a child is first learning to walk parents do not just sit back and watch the child stumble and fall and say nothing about their efforts. The first time they stand up on their own the parents clap and smile and say, “Look at you standing up.” As the child begins to take their first few steps, the parents get more and more involved and encouraging. “That’s it. You have it, move that foot.” “Look at you walking!” Although it took some cheering to get us going in the first place, we all walk around now without anyone cheering us on. We were externally motivated to figure it out and then we now are intrinsically motivated to walk from here to there because we know the value of the behavior.
This has become a rather long post, so I will stop today. There are times that even behavior specific praise, if given in front of peers is not good. Children with low self-esteem cannot accept praise given in front of others or sometimes even in private because it does not match how they feel on the inside. In these cases, we need to set the child up to earn social capital by setting them up for success in front of their peers without giving oral behavior specific praise. I’ll post about this at a later time.
I also believe we should be very careful about giving praise for the way a child is dressed. First, how a young child is dressed is a reflection on the parent and not the child. Second, for those children who cannot dress in fashionable clothing, it is an insult that someone near them is praised for something that has nothing to do with their character. I believe praising for things that are not actions are harmful. When I teach students how to give compliments to each other, I always teach them to compliment someone’s behavior and not how they look.
So these are my thoughts on praise. Inflated praise, non-specific praise, and praise on things that are not actions do little to help children become quality adults. However, behavior specific praise helps children learn proper behavior. At school, we always know when the child has moved to intrinsic motivation on their own. We will walk over to give them a gotcha for a behavior and they will say, “That’s okay. I don’t need a gotcha. It was just the right thing to do.” At this point, you know your behavior specific praise has paid off and the child is well on their way to becoming an adult that will do well in the world.
How we give a compliment is important
Why we remember negative more than positive
Terry Scott article on response to behavior and academics
Haydon, T., Conroy, M., Sindelar, P., Scott, T. M., Brian, & Marie, A. (2010). Comparison of Three Types of Opportunities to Respond on Student Academic and Social Behaviors, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral.
Why a Positive Approach to Education?
RTI- squared, cubed, and quartered by Dr. Terry Scott
Are we bribing kids too much?
Booklet of mine that has some of the research for teacher to student interactions:
inflated praise for kids with low self-esteem is harmful
This is why I like my 4 P’s for raising self-esteem. You can’t give compliments to kids with low self-esteem because they don’t believe it. It doesn’t match how they feel about themselves on the inside. The 4Ps are :
- Proficiency- help them make up for academic and social deficits by teaching them specific skills
- Public Relations- help them look good in front of their peers without calling them out- set them up for success in front of others (social capital)
- Power- teach them how to have power over their emotions- (breathing techniques etc.)
- Philanthropy- put them in charge of some philanthropy at school and home. It’s hard to feel bad about yourself when you are helping someone else.