How To Give Effective Praise: 6 Guidelines

Pittsburgh schools

By Michael Linsin

I’ve been writing about praise in my Smart Classroom Management articles since 2009, but there is still a lot of confusion over its use.

Typically, praise is given far too frequently.

Most classrooms are a constant stream of way-to-gos and good-jobs, regardless of accomplishment—or lack thereof.

Also known as false praise, lumping praise for expected behavior together with legitimate accomplishment is confusing to students.

It lowers the bar on what is considered excellence and strips praise of any real and lasting meaning.

It’s also often used dishonestly as a tool to manipulate students into desired behavior.

“I like how Clara is sitting and paying attention.”

Being aware of the perils of false praise and how it can damage intrinsic motivation and leave students directionless is good practice and something every teacher should know.

But there is also a danger in moving too far in the other direction and rarely giving praise at all—which, although a better option, leaves a powerful motivator on the sideline.

So to ensure you’re getting the most out of this critical tool, what follows are six guidelines to giving effective praise.

1. Who

Praise should be directed not at the student(s) themselves—as in, “You’re an amazing writer!”—but at their accomplishment. This way, the feedback is clear and the student isn’t confused into thinking that their hard work is finished.

2. What

Effective praise is praise given by the teacher in response to new learning or effort, behavior, and performance beyond what an individual student or class has done before.

3. Where

Praise can come at close range, with the teacher pointing out, and pointing at, something specific in the student’s work. It can also come in the form of a fist pump or head nod from across the room.

4. When

The teacher should be on the lookout for that which meets the criteria stated in the second guideline. The praise should come after the task, period, day, paragraph, etc. is completed.

5. Why

Praise is one of the clearest ways of communicating to students that they’re on the right track. It defines for them what excellence looks and feels like, which, in turn and thereafter, is highly intrinsically motivating.

6. How

Praise that inspires students to greater levels of achievement is honest, specific, authentic (often subtle), and based not on natural ability, but on the process of learning, growing, and maturing.

Praise That Works

For praise to be effective, you do not have to acknowledge every little improvement. In fact, it’s sometimes best for students to enjoy the feeling of completion and satisfaction all on their own.

It’s perfectly okay to let them wallow in their success without your input.

However, when your teacherly sense tells you that it’s time, when you feel the welling of pride in witnessing a real jump in behavior or performance, or a great struggle through difficulty, you must seize it.

You hear an especially insightful comment. You read a remarkably well-written paragraph. You watch a student succinctly explain to the class four distinct ways they arrived at their answer.

And you tell them the truth. You point out their good work. You allow your words and gestures flow from your heart.

You don’t shower them with manufactured enthusiasms. You never embarrass, condescend, or fail to respect the underlining seriousness of their mission.

You simply and authentically make sure that they know they’ve reached a notch in the journey beyond where they’ve been before.

This way, your praise will hit its mark. It will deepen the rumblings of healthy pride in a job well done they’re already feeling.

Tasting success through determination and hard work, and having it acknowledged and affirmed by a teacher they respect, admire, and know really means it, is a remarkable motivator.

It supports a growth mindset.

It drives students toward mastery and the profound intrinsic rewards of learning and acquiring skill, knowledge, and the confidence to tackle more and greater challenges with gusto.

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Michael Linsin is founder of Smart Classroom Management.

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