Praise is a powerful tool that can shape a child’s behaviour, self-esteem, motivation and self-actualization. When used thoughtfully, it can foster a positive environment and encourage growth. However, ineffective praise can have the opposite effect, as unintended consequences can render it counter-productive and even cause damage.

It is important to understand the dynamics of effective praise, to ensure it has the intended impact. It is equally important to encourage effort, resilience and learning in children. 

Adults should strike a balance between praise and encouragement to create a supportive environment that empowers children to thrive. Effective praise should be specific, celebrate effort, and emphasize practice, by focusing on the actions, rather than the innate characteristics of a child.

Being specific helps children understand what they did well and build upon that. So instead of saying ‘good job’, praise the child for sharing their toys with their friends, completing their homework timeously, or preparing for exams to the best of their ability. It is also a good idea and a point of connection, to show genuine interest in the effort. Use praise as an opportunity to engage children to share their experiences and learn from them.

It is vital to praise effort, not just outcomes, by acknowledging hard work, determination and resilience. Children need to understand that effort matters, not just outcomes. This is especially important for children who would do well without much effort in the early years, as they become empowered when they know they are not simply relying on their innate skills, but also taking ownership of their learning.

If a child, or student is working towards achieving a goal, do not wait until the goal is attained before acknowledging the work being put in. It is important to notice progress, no matter how small, as effort and practice build confidence on the way to mastering the task. Incremental improvements are cause for celebration and should be acknowledged as such.

Allowing for mistakes takes away performance paralysis and inculcates a growth mindset.  Mistakes and setbacks are important learning opportunities. Praise children when they manage disappointments well and encourage them to keep trying and moving forward.

While addressing a child consider using body language for emphasis purposes. Using an enthusiastic tone, smiling and making eye contact drives the message home, and gives children the psychological boosts they need to continue doing their best. Take care to be sincere as children can sense inauthenticity and fake praise.

Be present in the moment to ensure steering clear of absent-minded praise. Absent-minded praise is when an adult offers praise without engaging the child. For example, if your child shares that they did well on a test, put aside whatever you are doing to acknowledge and engage them. Tossing out a ‘good job’ while scrolling on your phone can be hurtful and damaging.

Absent-minded praise misses the chance to provide meaningful feedback and reinforce positive behaviour, while children may perceive it as insincere, or inconsequential, affecting their self-esteem and motivation.

Mindful and specific praise builds trust and will profoundly impact a child’s development. By mastering the art of praise, parents and teachers can inspire confidence, resilience and a growth mindset in their children.

By Jenny Coetzee, Managing Director at Crawford International Kenya