Authentic Praise

By Brent Vasicek on December 6, 2010
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

I just read an article by Dennis Prager called "Want to Raise a Good Person? Stop Nurturing Your Child's Self-Esteem." In the article he discusses the pitfalls of the "every child needs a trophy" society. I think Prager frames the problem of catering to the self-esteem of children in an interesting way. While some of his logic may be flawed, it did cause me to pause and reflect upon how I encourage students.

Photo of students trying several times to achieve a goal. It was not a success, but they learned many skills, including resiliency and perseverance.

 

 

As a teacher, I find students value honest feedback over a disingenuous comment. I put this theory to the test a few years ago when America Idol was at the peak of its success. I made a triangular name plate with a picture of Paula Abdul on one side, Randy Jackson on the second side, and Simon Cowell on the third side. The name plate could be easily rotated to fit the personality I was voted to take on.

At the end of every day we would rate our behavior and efficiency on a scale of 0–10. Before judging their day, I would ask the students which guest personality they wanted to do the judging. Their choices were Paula (the ultimate optimist), Randy (the pretty good guy), or Simon (tell it like it is). Each and every day, they wanted the Simon Cowell (maybe it was my British accent) feedback. In other words, they wanted the truth. And if the truth was great, then they could really celebrate that success.

PROBLEM

I think telling students "good job," when indeed it wasn't a good job at all, is modeling that it is okay to lie. When you lie to a child, two things can happen next: (1) They use you as a model to spread the insincere comments and even lies; (2) They lose respect for and trust in you. In the long run, I believe a child's self-esteem is hurt more knowing that the adults in their lives lie to them. It is our job as adults to teach them to how to deal with a comment other than "good job!" How do we accomplish that?

SOLUTION

I am not advocating yelling and screaming at children to deflate their self-esteem as I saw on an ABC's  "What Would You Do" segment with John Quinones last night. But I do have a few suggestions on how to give feedback in the classroom: FIGS. FIGS is short for Frequent, Immediate, Genuine, Specific feedback.

FREQUENT  Give each student feedback often. This can be verbal or in written form.  One way to help speed this process along with written work is to create a rubric with several comments already on it. Highlight or circle the comments on the rubric to prevent yourself from having to write sentence upon sentence on a particular writing piece or project.

IMMEDIATE  Don't wait to give feedback. Immediate feedback is important because the brain will have a better chance of linking it to the event.  For example, I make it a goal to grade every test within 24 hours and to follow up with errors in their morning math before noon.  

GENUINE Students know when you are lying. Actions speak louder than words. The key to boosting self-esteem is to be sincere.

SPECIFIC Chances are there is something positive you can say even in the most negative situation. Look for something specific and positive. For example, I never write "good job" on any writing assessment for good writers or poor writers.

  • Perhaps Johnny is a great writer. "Good job!" means nothing to him if you say that to every student in the room. Be specific by saying, "I like how you developed those ideas with some sensory details." Johnny then knows exactly what it is that he does well.
  • Perhaps Johnny is a horrible writer. Don't say, "Good job!" to keep his self-esteem high. You are not only lying to a child, but you are setting the bar low. Say something specific like, "I see you are working on complete sentences and you have done a great job of that here in the first sentence. Use that as your model to make complete sentences throughout."

Yes, it is more work to think of specific, positive phrases when the "good job" comment is right there waiting to be used. Train yourself not to use the phrase.

I try to reinforce FIGS every opportunity I get. For example, when a student says "thank you" to me, I always ask, "For what?"  I make them be specific with me. Ultimately, I think to survive as a society on this planet, we need to strengthen our youth with authentic and constructive feedback and criticism. 

What were some of your thoughts on the article or the ABC video?

Raisin' the bar,

Brent

www.mrvasicek.com

 

 

Comments

I love the idea of thinking of FIGS when I need to give feedback. Too often, I find myself using the phrase "good job" when I know it doesn't mean anything. I have been working on eliminating the use of it for years, but sometimes fall back into it. It takes practice and thinking, but is well worth the effort.

Krista, Thank you for the comment. I would suggest tackling one self-improvement goal a month. After about 6 weeks of practice, it becomes a habit. Before you know it you will be practically perfect like Mary Poppins! ~Brent

I couldn't agree more! Every time I hear "Good Job!" it makes me cringe. Though it takes some practice, I am making the effort to note specific accomplishments on tests and assessments. In addition to being more authentic, I believe it helps them learn to evaluate their own work with a critical eye if they know what YOU are seeing (and praising). I'm still working on the IMMEDIATE part of this, though...

:)

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