Eva Moravcik: Praise, in the way most teachers and parents intend it, is supposed to be a good thing. After all, we all like to be acknowledged and have something good noticed about us. However, praise is often about manipulation; in other words, praising children to get them to do something.
Docia Zavitkovsky: And I think what we want , is for children to gain confidence in our words, to know that our words are honest. And I don't think we give children credit for seeing through us and for sensing what is honest and what it not.
Frances Stott: In and of itself, I don't think giving praise is a bad idea. However, praise is massively overused and misunderstood. Teachers often have good intentions but fall back on such standard lines as "Good job Sally," and praise becomes meaningless.
Moravcik: This is one of the reasons praise isn't effective long term. I like to use the analogy of holiday cookies. You have one cookie and it's wonderful. But living on a steady diet isn't very satisfying. Pretty soon you aren't interested in any more cookies. Yet, many adults are still surprised when praise stops working.
ECT: Then how can we use praise more effectively in the classroom?
Barbara Bowman: Children need to understand that praise may be given for both effort and performance. We do this by not being effusive with our praise unless one or both are present and by making clear what we are praising.
Zavitkovsky: I sometimes say that praise is fine when praise is due. You see, we get into the habit of praising when it isn't praise that is appropriate, but encouragement. For example, we're always saying to young children: "Oh, what a beautiful picture" even when their pictures aren't necessarily beautiful. So why not really look at each picture? Maybe a child has painted a picture with many wonderful colors. Why don't we comment on that, on the reality of the picture?
ECT: So, is there a difference between praise and encouragement?
Moravcik: Yes, I think so. Encouragement is about genuinely acknowledging and appreciating what a child has done. "You did that. You climbed to the top of the climber." "You put your jacket in your cubby." Encouragement is about the child. And praise is about what I want the child to do. Children can see through that.
Zavitkovsky: In other words, encouragement deals with reality and acknowledging reality -"You put all the cups in the right place." "You really tried to build that tower and you built a very high tower." Encouragement is not flattery. It's not manipulative.
ECT: How important is the source, the person who provides the praising or encouraging?
Bowman: There is no question that both positive and negative feedback are more meaningful when the child interacts with someone who cares for them and whom they care about. Relationships set the stage for how praise and encouragement is given and received. Different individuals and groups may do it differently. I am African American and my grandmother did not give verbal praise easily. Yet, I never had any question about when my grandmother approved or disapproved of what I was doing. She loved me and I knew it. She expressed her love by what she did, not what she said. Certainly, some individuals and groups are lavish in their praise of children's achievements, while others are much more reserved. The important point is that both the adult and child understand the emotional message being conferred by their behavior.
Polly Greenberg: I also think it's important to remember that what we communicate to children nonverbally has infinitely more influence on them than do the words we say. I don't think neglecting to praise a child, if all the vibes are loving and endorsing, matters much.
ECT: What can we do, besides praising children, to help them feel good about themselves and their abilities?
Stott: There seems to be some confusion about how children develop self-esteem. The misconception is that if we give children praise and positive reinforcement, they will feel better about themselves. Rather, feeling good about oneself derives from a history of acceptance and approval in meaningful relationships and also from satisfaction taken from mastering meaningful activities.
Greenberg: I think a critical source of positive or negative self-esteem for a young child is whether she feels ever more competent or not. Young children swell with pride whenever they master "a developmental milestone" or something they're trying to do, like climb higher on the monkey bars. Making sure that each child has achievable challenges in her life, and reflecting her pleasure back to her when she's pleased with her progress or accomplishment in something she finds meaningful and wants to accomplish, helps develop her self-esteem.
Stott: Helping a child achieve genuine mastery is a gift that teachers are in the best position to provide. So, instead of saying "good job," the teacher actually helps the child do a good job. For example, let's say a child is trying to put a puzzle together. The teacher can give an occasional hint, allow the child enough time, make sure the child has the opportunity to work without other children interfering, or let the child make her own mistakes. In other words, the teacher helps the child actually do the puzzle herself-and that presents the child with the opportunity to achieve mastery.
There are so many opportunities for children to achieve mastery and to feel competent at school-learning appropriate content and developing adaptive behaviors such as focusing, learning how to learn, learning how to think about learning, and learning to play with others. And nothing substitutes for this. Children cannot be told they have achieved mastery-they know it. Though they appreciate it when we acknowledge what they have done, they have to know and feel it themselves.
Eva Moravcik, M.Ed., worked closely with Stephanie Feeney, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Hawaii, in contributing to this roundtable.