Giving and receiving praise always feels good and is readily acknowledged as kind behavior and a common classroom strategy. So, when one dares to say that praise may actually be harmful to students, it raises an alarm. Just because praise is used a lot and appears effective doesn’t mean it is a valid practice. As educators, we must ask ourselves what is the purpose behind praising, and does it lead to our intended outcome? When we start dissecting the hidden problems associated with praise, we might like to rethink its use and consider alternatives.
Praise and Its Connection To Control
- What is praise and does it fall under feedback?
Praise focuses on expressing admiration or approval for someone’s characteristics, values, or merit. Praise is akin to a form of positive feedback in that it compliments someone about the way they are or act. But does it really qualify as feedback? When we praise, autonomy can be stripped away from our students. They may begin to feel that their relationship with the teacher is conditional and depends on conforming to the teacher’s expectations on aspects that may or may not be controllable by the students. It can create mixed feelings for the receiver. On the one hand, they might like the praise that satisfies their ego. On the other hand, they may feel uncomfortable and dislike the attention in a social context. The purpose of feedback is not to control but to support students in accessing their internal source of empowerment, causing them to take action by and for themselves. When we use praise as a source of control, it can have the opposite effects of the desired results.
- Praise comes in different forms
Praise can come in the form of a verbal reward (Wow! Good job! You are so smart!), non-verbal communication (thumbs up, applause, high five), and tools that are used in the classroom (behavior charts, golden stars, stickers, badges). These many forms of praise create the perfect conditions for generating “introjected regulation” in the recipient (Ryan & Deci, 2017). This low-quality motivation involves the ego of the receiver and can cause the person to rely on external validation and experience mental health deterioration when not meeting other people’s standards (the teacher’s or the parents’). When we experience introjection, we experience praise and other “rewards” as conditional to our ways of being and acting and attach them to ourselves as people. This puts this feedback at the level of the “self,” which threatens our wellbeing, as we feel judged for whom we are rather than evaluated on a task. This form of feedback has the least impact on learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).
- Praise generates different responses
When used too often in the classroom, praise deprives the students of their ability to self-judge as they believe that what really matters is what the teacher thinks. They start to play the game of compliance. They focus on anticipating what the teacher wants them to do or to be like in order to receive positive attention.
Based on the developmental stage, self-beliefs, or other factors, people feel differently about receiving praise. Some may simply dislike the flattery because it can be experienced as fake, manipulative, and controlling. Very young children may respond with pride to praise and look forward to their parents or teacher praising them. But when they continue to expect that external validation as they grow older, they start to construct their identity and self-concept based on what the adults believe about them, rather than by accessing their own criteria of what is good/bad, right/wrong. As demonstrated through the decades of research on the Self-Determination Theory (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 2001; Ryan & Deci, 2017), this can be problematic because the reliance on an external locus of control makes children draw from a lower quality motivation that is dependent on others, that involves their ego. When things don’t go well and students fail to be praised, they experience shame, inadequacy, and mental distress. Praising can generate a sense of satisfaction for the person at the receiving end in the short term, but because the validation is externally maneuvered, it can be perceived as controlling.
Multi-Faceted Problems With Praise
Let’s take a look at some of the situations when praise is problematic.
- Praising the “star student”
Praising the student who is consistently performing very well builds up pressure for that student who may start to dread failure and therefore begins to avoid challenges. They may become risk-averse, overly self-critical, and a perfectionist. Praising intelligence, as Dweck (2007) demonstrated, is the recipe for making people feel pressured to perform and inadequate when not meeting other people’s expectations. That student may build up anxiety and slowly lose interest in things that were originally enjoyable. The focus then becomes on compliance and conformity. It also brings in status and compartmentalizes students into groups of “good at” and “bad at,” labeling and fixing students into categories that reinforce the idea that there are winners and losers and not everyone can succeed. It makes struggling students want to give up and quit early because they see no point in trying and persevering.
If we praise a student to acknowledge strengths, we need to be genuine as students can detect false praise (Robins, 2012). They hear the teacher saying something positive, but they actually listen to their inner voice telling them that this is a lie. The impact is therefore negative and reinforces the inner negative beliefs that the praised students hold about themselves. This is what caused people to misunderstand the growth mindset (Dwecka, 2007). Simply telling struggling students, “You can do it,” without providing the scaffold for their success, may result in learned helplessness (Seligman, 1972; Seligman, 2018). This is the belief that they are incapable so there is no point in even trying. This further alienates the most marginalized students from their successful peers and hurts their self-beliefs.
When praise takes place in a social context, direct or indirect comparisons are made. For example, when a teacher praises a child in front of the class (e.g., Look at how Emily is quietly sitting!) it causes others to change their behavior and adopt the attitude of the praised children. In this case, praising is a strategy of control that aims to manipulate other students into acting a certain way. Complying with the standards set by the teacher and illustrated by a few students (especially the ones who learned to please the teacher) sends the message that students need to obey the teacher and that their behaviors are constantly monitored and evaluated against one another. It creates a competitive environment that is socially and emotionally unsafe, where students are pitted against each other. Paradoxically, because some students refuse to comply and respond in ways that challenge authority, this “classroom management” practice also generates what it intentionally wants to combat, defiant behaviors.
What Might We Do Instead of Praising
The difference may seem like semantics to some, but nuances are everything and push us to address the root of a problem rather than its symptoms (Senge, 2010). It is in the concept of encouragement that we may find an answer to the issue of praise. An encouragement strengthens someone by “giving courage,” stimulating and supporting the person in recognizing their strengths and deeds, and transforming challenges into opportunities to grow. Encouragements foster a climate whereby the person is more likely to feel driven to take action by themselves. The tone of voice of verbal encouragement is very important as it reflects the supportive climate. So, how might we encourage students instead of praising them?
The Shift From Praise to Encouragement
Shifting habits is hard but possible. To move our practice from praising to encouraging, we need to focus on the variable of “control.” They need to interpret the “feedback” as informational rather than controlling (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 2001). Students will then feel in charge of themselves and experience autonomy so they can act in ways that align with their goals, aspirations, and interests. The change may take time to show effectiveness because most schooling systems still rely heavily on external motivators. But do not despair! Apply fidelity to these principles by integrating them into your frame of reference (your identity as an inclusive educator) and into your everyday actions. You can be vulnerable and even tell your students that you have learned something new and are trying to implement it because you want the best for them. They will want to support you in your transformational journey.
These are some of the essential shifts that illustrate what it takes to move from praising to encouraging. You might like to self-assess where you might be and start with clear goals to experiment with in your context.
Essential shifts from praise to encouragement
Less focus on ...
More focus on ...
External judgment and evaluation (including tone of voice that conveys conditional support)
Internal control with self-evaluation (including tone of voice that conveys unconditional support)
Product-oriented comment (e.g., I am proud of you, you got a good grade!).
Process-oriented comment (e.g., you put effort into this work, you must feel proud of yourself)
Pleasing the teacher
Achieving self goals and aspirations
Ticking the boxes of a task/rubric
The process of the learning experience
Comparing students with one another (directly or not)
Criterion-referenced tasks and self-assessment tools
The right and fast answer (perfectionism and time pressure) leading to fear of failure
Risk-taking and perseverance through challenges and failures
Fixed traits and attributes that cannot be changed by the students
Variables that students have control over and can grow, such as the actions performed intentionally
Toning down or ignoring emotions (sending the message that certain emotions are not welcomed)
Recognizing all emotions as valid and welcomed (nurturing self-regulation)
Telling and giving advice
Asking questions, letting them learn
Public display of status (comparison, rivalry)
More personalization (tell the child separately)
Listening and paraphrasing students so they feel heard (indirect way to encourage)
What Emerges From an Encouraging Classroom Climate
When we encourage, we foster a sense of control for the students receiving encouragement, which activates their desire to take a certain action and draws from their intrinsic motivation. Encouragements are given with the intention to nurture a climate of autonomy and not to manipulate or coerce in any way. When encouraged, students are able to ground themselves and learn to regulate their emotions. They can see mistakes as hidden gems that become opportunities to learn and grow. They also feel a sense of belonging, significance, and that they matter, which satisfies their basic psychological need for relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2017). They take more risks in their learning, engaging in more challenging experiences because it is a safe social and emotional environment where they can easily bounce back. When in a culture of encouragement, students develop self-worth and are able to value themselves, without relying on external validation.
Encouragements are crafted to activate learning and develop thriving learners who unleash their inner power and control their own actions. So, let’s apply the science of motivation and let go of control so that all our learners can experience autonomy and flourish.
- Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1-27. doi:10.3102/00346543071001001
- Dweck, C. S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34-39.
- Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Updated Edition: Hachette.
- Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487
- Robins, G. (2012). Praise, motivation and the child. New York, USA: Routledge.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory, Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. Guilford Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). "Learned helplessness". Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407–412. https//doi.org/10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Hachette.
- Senge, P. M (2010). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Revised. Crown.
Fanny Passeport (M.Ed) is the founder of No Borders Learning, a postgraduate student at the University of Dundee, and an education development officer at ErasmusX, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She previously worked in PK-12 schools as a director of learning, technology integrator, and French language acquisition teacher. She is a published author and an award-winning educator.