Guest post: Using praise in the classroom – the good, the bad and the ugly

Daniel Nixon is a middle leader and Year 5 teacher who returned to mainstream education earlier this year after working for 4 years in a PRU. In this post he considers the use of praise in teaching and the different approaches required…

Sanctions and praise have always gone hand in hand. The old adage of ‘carrot and stick’ rings true for many. It would be easy to think that in terms of managing children in a school, they would want to avoid the sanctions and punishment and work tirelessly for the praise. For the masses this may be gospel truth but there are some children who end up getting sanctioned when they do something wrong and then what feels like a sanction again when they are praised for doing something right.

There are many types of personalities in a modern day classroom and although many school systems seem to try to suppress them and uniform them, with a classroom ethos based on secure relationships they are still there. There are the boisterous ones, the quiet ones, the studious ones, the shy ones and the ones who like to be involved in malarkey but stop before being caught. In an attempt to actually label the children in some ratifying system for this post, on one end of the scale there are the introverts and on the opposing end the extroverts and everyone else between them. If a class teacher thinks about their own class, they will be able to easily pick the ones for either end of the spectrum and these are the most suitable ones to use for the discussion.

If we take a brief look at sanctions, many children respond differently to them. There are children who respond extremely well to an assertive tone while there are others who will escalate in an instant. The same approach garnered different responses from different children. Think of praise. There are many forms of it and it also has a different effect on different children.

There are children who would absolutely love the teacher stopping the lesson, asking for everyone’s attention while they parade the chosen one in front of them for all to marvel. That 10 seconds of fame is so high-ranking in their lives that they would try to do anything to replicate the event. It would be fair to say that these children are the extroverts in the class.

Now take the introverts. These children are highly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings and seldom want to bother with everyone apart from an elect group of friends. Can you imagine them feeling on top of the world as you stop the class for their 10 seconds of fame? Would it really feel like 10 seconds to them? I know some children in my own class that would want the ground to swallow them up because it feels like they’ve been stood up at the front for 10 minutes with everyone glaring. Would this experience elicit a response of wanting to replicate their behaviour that I had praised them for? I think not. However this isn’t to say they don’t need praising; they need praising like everyone else but just in a different way.

There are many ways to praise a child. They can be stood at the front for their 10 seconds of fame. You can use a range of verbal comments and a range of non-verbal praise (thumbs up, wink, smile etc). You can use physical praise such as giving them a pat on the back. You can tell their parents at home time or call them up. You can even call their parents in front of them. You can send certificates and personal, hand-written notes home to specifically say what the child has done well. You can give them extra privileges such as jobs, extra ICT time or book corner time. The list is endless but why bother? Shouldn’t they just accept the praise the same as everyone else?

Praise should be personal in order for it to mean something to a child. Stickers and tokens give an immediate shot of praise for a child but it doesn’t have a lasting effect. This is because it is not meaningful; it is generic and the appeal soon wears off. What teachers need to do to make praise effective for them and meaningful for the children is personalise it. If you have certain children in the class who are introverted, write them a personal note home with a positive message and slip it to them privately. They don’t need the big song and dance, they just need praise that is appropriate for them and their individualities. A smile might even do! However if you have one of the more boisterous members of the class and you never put them in the limelight for something they have done right, they may never feel like they have been praised.

With the selection of praise that adults in a school have, it is their duty to differentiate these and hand them out freely and appropriately. It will show the children that you actually care about them enough to respect their preferences and the carrot will taste perfect. Now, where has my stick gone?


You can read more from Daniel at his blog and follow on Twitter @pruman21


Are comments, questions or feedback on Daniel’s article? Please let us know your own thoughts on the use of praise in the comments below or via Twitter…


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