How to Praise Your Kids
I have spent hours observing children in their classrooms or homes as a school psychologist and mobile therapist. Generally what happens is a teacher or parent comes to me saying that the child does not behave. Some common concerns are the child does not listen, talks whos vs who’s back when reprimanded, won’t sit still, talks to others during class time, does not stop when told to stop, and will not complete work or tasks.
One thing I have noticed in my observations is that adults unknowingly miss moments when the child could have been acknowledged for appropriate behavior. I can recall sitting in a classroom for 45 minutes in which the child I am asked to observe is cooperative and respectful for the first 35 minutes. During that time the child’s behaviors are not directly acknowledged, rather, the teacher would look at me with a face or a comment of disbelief that the child was behaving. When the child started talking to a friend or playing with items in his desk, in the last ten minutes of class, the teacher would often say “See, this is what I mean.”
When telling teachers or parents that it is important to acknowledge desired behaviors, rather than focusing on negative behaviors, I would often be faced with comments of resistance such as “Why should I tell him he’s doing the right thing, when that is what he is supposed to be doing?, “I don’t have enough time to constantly praise him for his behavior, I am busy teaching”, or “If I praise him for his behavior, I have to praise all the other students and that will take up way too much time.”
Answer: People like to hear that they are doing the right thing. When someone acknowledges their strengths, they feel respected by that person. When a child feels respected by you he is more open to following your rules. How do I know this? Because I have always praised my clients or students for doing the right thing. They knew I was sincere and they felt how much I respect I had for them. In my career, I have faced very little problems with negative behaviors from children; even the ones that teachers and parents said had the worst behavior.
When you acknowledge a child’s good behaviors, he gets a self-esteem boost. That is a good feeling and they will engage in similar behaviors to get that feeling again. It might be hard to believe, but deep down virtually all kids want to please adults. They want to hear that they are doing the right thing and they want us to be proud of them for making good choices. Adults are the same way. When supervisors I had in the past told me how calm, patient, or diligent I was, it made me want to be that way even more. Because whether we admit it or not, we all like it when someone thinks something good about us.
Also, some children don’t always know exactly what is expected of them. Giving them praise helps them learn these expectations. For instance, if you are a teacher and you want your students to come in everyday, hang up their coats, sit down, takeout their notebooks, and write a sentence about something fun they did yesterday, tell them just that. Review those rules in a short, clear, specific way at the door each morning before they walk in the room. When they follow through PRAISE THEM, ACKNOWLEDGE THEM. Say, you did a great job following the rule. You hung up your coats, sat at your desks, took out your notebooks, and started writing. You should all be proud of yourselves. This reinforces the rule. Overtime they will know it so well that all you will have to say is “Do the morning routine” and then “Nice work with the morning routine.” After a while it will be so intrinsic for your students that the language can be faded out even more.
When trying to change a child’s behavior, make sure praise is specific (i.e.,” I like how you took out your notebook and started writing as soon as you sat down”, rather than just an abstract comment like “good job.”) Make sure you acknowledge your child for the right things much more often than you point out the wrong things.” Children respond better when you focus on their strengths, than when you criticize their faults, just like adults.
If only a few children follow the rule in a group setting like a classroom, than praise those children. This lets them be acknowledged and can cause other students to strive for the same. Older children may get embarrassed when praised, so try to acknowledge their strengths more privately, like at the end of class when others are walking out or with a note in their test.
Answer – Yes you do. If you have enough time to reprimand the child for not following the rules or to attend meetings with other professionals to try and figure out why he does not listen, then you can find time to praise him for following the rules. It takes less time to say “You had great focus during math today” than to repeatedly say” “‘You’re not paying attention”, “Pick your head up”, “stop talking”, etc. At first you may need to acknowledge his good focus everyday, but eventually you can fade out the language and just give a look that says I’m proud of you.