Making Praise Work – Make Sure it’s Effective for ALL Children

January 17, 2017

To make praise as effective as possible, it is important that you label it.

In other words, tell children exactly what it is you are praising them for.  Simply saying “Good Boy” or “Well Done” does not have the same impact as saying, “Well done for remembering to put your hand up.” Or, at home, “Well done for taking your plate out to the kitchen.”

When children hear exactly what it is they are being praised for, they are much more likely to remember the praise, remember what it was they did to earn the praise and do it again the next time!


Use the child’s name to make sure you have their attention and that they know you are talking to them (especially if there is more than one child present, such as in a whole class situation, or where siblings or playmates are around): “Jack, well done for putting your books away.” And at home: “Michael, I’m proud of you for helping your sister with her homework.”  You could also add a “Thank you” to let them know you appreciate it…. “Samuel, thank you for coming to the carpet when I asked you; well done.” “Emily, well done for setting the table, I really appreciate that.”


Praising children when they are not expecting it, rather than just in response to them complying with your requests, is also powerful.  For example, if a child at school is knuckling down to their work really well, you could say, “Matt, I’m really impressed with the way you are working; well done!” and at home, if a child is colouring quietly at the table, instead of quietly sneaking away to get on with something, you could say, “Frankie, you are colouring so well; that’s fantastic!”.  Receiving this surprise positive attention reminds children of the behaviour you want to see and motivates them to keep going.  It also means that you are giving attention for positive behaviour.  As a result, in school, children know that being on task results in attention and, at home, your child doesn’t have to resort to colouring on the walls to get your attention – a strategy that is sure to work! Remember, what you pay attention to is what you will get more of!


Both teachers and parents have said, “But he/she is always so badly behaved, I can’t find anything to praise him/her for!”

For the more challenging children, or those where it is difficult to find the occasion to praise, it is especially important to look for opportunities to praise by ‘spotting the good’.  Even the most difficult children aren’t difficult 100% of the time and there must be times when they behave appropriately, so it is crucial that when they do, you are quick to notice and acknowledge their behaviour with praise: “Well done for sitting nicely in your seat, Amar.” And at home, “Sam, thank you for remembering to take your shoes off before you went upstairs.” Spotting the good and rewarding it with positive attention in the form of praise means they are much more likely to repeat the behaviour in the future.  It also helps boost their self-esteem, which can sometimes be very low in more challenging children, as well as building a positive relationship between you both.


Remember, you could also be inadvertently reinforcing their inappropriate behaviour by giving it your attention, albeit negative – remember the Attention Rule? Giving negative attention to children who exhibit challenging behaviour can create a negative cycle; they behave inappropriately and get your attention, which leads to more inappropriate behaviour to get more negative attention and so on, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a “Challenging Child”. It is important that you break this cycle by spotting and reinforcing any good behaviour, as well as reducing your attention for negative behaviour.  This may be easier said than done, but well worth the effort in the long-term! (Remember to look out for our blog on Effective Ignoring, which will help.)


Some children, for a variety of reasons, may find praise difficult to accept.  They may have low self-esteem and feel they don’t deserve it; they could have social, emotional and mental health issues or attachment issues and feel unworthy or suspicious of the motives behind the praise.  At school, if you have children who don’t get praised at home, or indeed receive a lot of negative attention or criticism from parents or caregivers, they may begin to believe that they are no good and, again, feel undeserving.  Other children may feel a bit embarrassed by the praise.  This doesn’t mean that you should not praise these children. On the contrary, these children need praise even more.  However, you do need to be careful with how you go about it.  We like to call this the ’drip-drip effect’: Imagine you have a dried-up sponge and you turn the tap on it full blast, the water will come splashing off it.  If, however, you drip the water slowly onto it a little at a time, it will begin to absorb it. You can use more subtle forms of praise – a thumbs up, a pat on the shoulder, a smile – gradually the praise will begin to have an effect.  You will need to be patient and not take any rejection personally.

’Earshot Praise’, which we will talk about in our next blog, also works well in these situations.

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