“Good job!”, “Gimme five!”, “Awesome!”, “What a beautiful picture!” these are a sampling of encouraging phrases you might hear at any playground, preschool, or anywhere else young children hang out. I’d never really given these words or the idea of praise much thought. I praise my own children when they accomplish something challenging or new, and I also praise the children with whom I work. After all, children with communication difficulties can really struggle sometimes and therefore we should acknowledge their efforts. Apparently, praise manipulates children so that they do what the adult wants them to do; it can also decrease a child’s motivation and sense of achievement.
There is a great debate among experts about the effects of praise on children. In the article “Clarifying Issues Regarding the Use of Praise with Young Children” by Dr. Mojdeh Bayat which summarizes this debate, with particular focus on the use of praise with children with special needs. The terms “good boy” and “good girl” have been used since at least the mid-1800’s. But the idea of using praise to motivate children really took off after the publication of “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in 1969, which suggested that many of the problems of American society resulted from lack of self-esteem. As a result, praise became a way to boost children’s self-esteem, and over a thousand scholarly articles have since promoted the use of praise to improve children’s motivation and school performance.
Praising children with special needs increased in the 1960s, when studies (especially from the field of behaviorism) began to show its positive effects. Many intervention programs today continue to use praise with children with special needs because it can prevent “learned helplessness” which can develop when a child has repeated negative experiences in a situation, and comes to believe that he has no control over the outcome. In this case, praise may motivate and encourage a child to learn. Challenging behaviors when an appropriate behavior is “positively reinforced” (e.g. praised), it is likely to occur again, while an ignored behavior is likely to decrease.
In the 1980s and 1990s, some scholars started to argue that praise can undermine children’s motivation, create pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce independence. Praise may be harmful for young children, claiming that praise manipulates children and that praise is a way of getting children to comply with adults’ wishes. This works in the short term because young children want adults’ approval. But Kohn argues that we should not take advantage of children’s dependence. It creates praise “junkies” – the more praise children receive, the more they rely on adult evaluations instead of forming their own judgments. It steals a child’s pleasure – children deserve to delight in their accomplishments instead of being judged. Most people don’t think a statement like “Good job!” is a judgment, but Kohn argues that it’s as much an evaluation as “Bad job”. It also decreases interest – research has shown that people tend to lose interest in activities for which they have been praised. Instead of motivating a child to engage in an activity, praise motivates a child to get more praise. Lastly it reduces achievement, children who are praised for creative tasks tend to stumble at the next task. This may be because of the pressure created to continue to keep up the good work, and because the child has lost interest. In addition, children who are praised are less likely to take risks, as they may fear they won’t receive positive feedback. It’s also been found that students who receive positive reinforcement do not persist in the face of difficulties.
It may be that not all forms of praise are harmful. Research has shown that different types of praise have different effects on children. Distinctions have been made between person praise and process praise. Person praise is the type of praise that evaluates a child’s traits, like his intelligence. Person praise evaluates a child globally, telling her that she is good or smart or outstanding. Examples of this kind of praise include, “You’re a good girl”, “You’re so good at this”, or “I’m very proud of you”. Studies have shown that person praise reduces motivation, focuses students on their performance and encourages them to compare their performance with that of others. Process praise is the type of praise that is related to the child’s effort and focuses on his or her behavior and actual “work” or output. Examples of process praise include “you tried really hard” or “I see how carefully you are building that tower.” Process praise has been shown to encourage children to develop a flexible mindset, confront their weaknesses, and take on challenges.
In the article it states that the question may not be “Should we praise young children?”, but rather “How should we praise young children?” A lot of research has shown that process praise motivates children to work hard, learn, explore, and have a healthy outlook on their abilities. In addition, praise that is sincere and conveys realistic expectations can promote a child’s self-motivation. Effective praise can be use into your everyday life with your child by Describing your child’s behavior and effort, not his or her attributes. Statements like “good girl” or “great job” undermine self-motivation, and don’t provide your child with specific information that will help him or her continue the desired behavior. Instead, say what you see, by providing a simple, evaluation-free statement like “You used a lot of bright colors in your picture” or “Your tower is so tall!”. Even a simple “You did it!” tells the child that you noticed, without providing a judgment. Bayat suggests that paying positive attention to appropriate behavior that is valued can be effective. An encouraging description such as “I can see you are working very hard on that puzzle” or “Wow! You are sharing the toy truck with your brother” tells a child that effort, cooperation, and positive relationships are valued in your home. You should avoid praise for low-challenge activities or error-free success as this tells a child that he is only praiseworthy when he completes tasks quickly, easily and perfectly, and does not help a child embrace challenge. Be careful when praising after failure or mistakes – Praise such as “Well done. You did your best” can convey pity. It can also contribute to a child’s belief that his or her mistakes are a result of an underlying fixed ability or intelligence (which can’t be improved or changed) rather than due to effort (which can be improved). And telling a child to “Try harder” does not give the child any information about how to improve his or her effort. It may be best to provide process praise and identify what the child did accomplish in this case. For example, “You missed the goal, but it was very, very close!”. Praise must be sincere and it should reflect the amount of effort the child puts in. When praise is meaningless and “over the top”, it loses its effectiveness. Choose appropriate activities, many people praise children in order to maintain their interest in an activity and discourage misbehavior. However, it is important to think about whether the child has been given something appropriate to learn, and whether the expectations are realistic. If you find you need to use a lot of praise in order to keep your child interested in an activity, try modifying the activity to make it more interesting or choosing an activity he really likes. Also, Reduce the amount of praise, praising a child can really become a habit. If your child is naturally interested in an activity and self-motivated, you don’t need to use praise at all. Participate with your child during the activity and respond with interest and conversation. Lastly you should provide natural consequences, when it comes to communication, praise can get in the way of conversation. Communication is its own reward, so, providing praise regarding a child’s attempts to communicate by saying “Yay! You said ‘cookie’!” or “Nice talking!” undermines the real purpose of communication, which is to share thoughts and feelings and to get things done. Therefore, if your child says “cookie”, give him a cookie and talk about the cookie, which is far more reinforcing since it tells him that his communication was effective. If your child points to bubbles, say, “Wow! Look at all the bubbles!” or talk about how they are floating in the air or how they pop. Your child will be motivated just by having his message understood and responded to with enthusiasm.
In conclusion, when we think of what is the goal when it comes to encouraging children we should keep “in mind our long-term, goals for our children” and “watch for the effects of what we say”. Ultimately, we want to encourage our children to be self-motivated and to embrace challenge and that means not making them dependent on praise.
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