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Can Adults
Praise Children Too Much?

Curriculum CenterAccording to some psychologists and researchers, praising everything children do does not build self-esteem -- eventually the praise becomes meaningless. Instead of continually praising students, teachers should substitute descriptive comments or cite specific improvements in work. Included: Experts debate the question "To praise or not to praise?" -- plus praise pointers!

Most parents and educators agree that praise is critical to developing children's self-esteem -- so the more praise the better. Right?

Not necessarily, according to some psychologists and educators. Although praise is obviously good for children, if adults applaud everything children do, the praise can eventually lose its effect or create "approval junkies" -- youngsters who constantly seek praise, some child professionals say.

Rather than responding to all of children's work with phrases such as "Good job" or "Nice work," teachers should consider comments that describe the content and encourage children to continue to improve, some researchers advise.



The common notion is that children with high self-esteem will be happier and perform better in school and later in life. Research does not support that idea, however, said Marshall Duke, a clinical psychologist, a researcher, and the Charles Howard Chandler professor of psychology at Emory University, in Atlanta.

"Self-esteem does not make them happier, achieve more, or become more capable and competent," Duke told Education World. "It does help kids deal with stressful situations and builds in some resilience."

Identifying a child's strengths and developing those strengths helps build confidence more than constant praise does, according to Duke. Praise also loses its effect if the praise is the same for all the students. For example, if all the students in a class are told their paintings are great and students know some are better than others, the praise will lose its significance.

"There is a need to have more room on either side of 'good,'" Duke said. "People go from 'good' right to 'phenomenal.' Honest feedback delivered sensitively is far more beneficial in the long run than empty praise."

Adults have gotten into the habit of not telling children when they are wrong, and that will not help them cope with adversity when they are adults, Duke added. "That's not how the world is."




Praise Pointers!

Looking for something to say to your students other than "good job"? The following are some suggestions from psychologists, researchers, and other child professionals on improving the way adults praise students.

* Comment on the content of the student's work or on a noticeable improvement. For example, if a student asks for feedback on a drawing or painting, the teacher can say "Why did you put the wagon there?" or "You are drawing faces better," suggested Benjamin Mardel, a researcher with Project Zero at Harvard University.

* "If a student cannot really draw well, but it is a good effort for him or her, say that," advised Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. "When you are dealing with something that can be judged, or when standards can be applied, apply them."

* Try to make the praise specific, and focus on the effort that went into the work. Saying "I can see a lot of effort and thought went into that paragraph" rather than "That's a good paragraph" is more meaningful to a child, according to J. D. Hawkins, a high school counselor and president of the National Association for Self-Esteem.

* In deciding on the type of praise, teachers should know what students themselves consider an achievement. "If kids try to do things that are hard for them, and they do it, good for them," Duke said. "They need praise based on an achievement."

Although the idea that praise for children should be more selective and specific is not new, it is starting to overtake the notion that more praise always is better, according to Benjamin Mardel, a researcher with Harvard University's Project Zero, a research group associated with the college's school of education.

"Blanket, automatic, or empty praise is useless," Mardel told Education World. "Children see through it. They can learn more from descriptive comments. The praise has to be grounded in something real."

Mardel also commented that he would not want to see the pendulum swing back to the other extreme where teachers withhold praise for genuine accomplishments. "The joy and excitement of learning can co-exist with some of the tension and anxiety that's also part of learning," he said.

Teachers can help build children's self-esteem by creating classroom atmospheres in which children feel comfortable and secure and classmates support one another, Mardel explained. "That is more important than words flowing from a teacher."



J. D. Hawkins, a counselor at the Illinois State University Laboratory High School, in Normal, Illinois, and president of the National Association for Self-Esteem, agrees that an atmosphere in which children feel secure is critical to fostering self-esteem.

"I don't believe you can give anyone self-esteem, but you can create an environment where it can grow," Hawkins said.

Constant praise, though, does not build self-esteem and can create "approval junkies" -- kids who seek praise for everything they do, Hawkins said. "Their self-worth is based on what others say, and that is not a healthy self-esteem. They can't do things if they are not praised."



Not everyone, though, agrees that less praise can be more beneficial. Barry Lubetkin, a psychologist and director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy in New York City, said that given a choice, he would always opt for more praise.

"My concern is that people will find that an alternative to praising is to not praise children at all," Lubetkin told Education World. "I have patients who report that they were not praised as children. If I have to err, I would err on the side of over praising."

Lubetkin admits there is a possibility that too much praise could make children jaded and less prepared for the rigors of adult life and that, in some cases, parents could be more selective with praise.

"If a child has been working hard on vocabulary and comes home with an A, it is appropriate to praise [the child] and point out the connection to hard work," Lubetkin said. "But if [the child] normally does well in vocabulary, there is no need to be effusive."



Despite what some researchers say, Lori Palmer, who teaches special education at Jacob Gunther Elementary School, in North Bellmore, New York, said she can see the impact of praise from her or classroom aides on students every day.

"I'm like a cheerleader all day," Palmer told Education World. "The praise keeps them going. When they hear 'you're wonderful,' 'good job,' or 'you're so smart,' it's always meaningful -- I can tell by the looks on their faces. They are more likely to try harder or take risks. They know they are being praised for at least trying."

That kind of constant encouragement might not be as critical in a regular class, Palmer said, but she believes all children benefit from steady praise. "I would err on the side of praising more."

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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